The life of Caroline Norton, the 19th century author and campaigner who is the remarkable subject of Antonia Fraser’s engaging new biography The Case of the Married Woman, plays out like a Victorian sensation novel.
The granddaughter of the celebrated Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she was born in 1808 and from adolescence was praised for her quick wit, charm and beauty (she and her two sisters were nicknamed the ‘Three Graces’ by their countless admirers). The family’s literary pedigree, though, did not give Caroline and her siblings financial security: the Sheridans were notoriously bad with money, and like so many literary heroines of that era, the sisters were expected to make financially expedient marriages.
George Norton, a Tory MP, seemed like a suitable matrimonial candidate (his comparative financial stability seemed to compensate for political differences - Caroline and her family were avowed Whigs) and the pair wed in 1827. The couple moved to London, where Caroline “swiftly [found] herself presiding over a salon,” Fraser writes.
Figures from across the political spectrum flocked to their Westminster home, including future Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli (who was so struck by Caroline’s beauty that he referred to her as ‘Starry Night’ in his letters) and Lord Melbourne, with whom she struck up a close friendship - close enough, indeed, to spark gossip and innuendo in society circles.
Though he benefited politically from his wife’s connections, George didn’t take well to having his star eclipsed by a woman. Jealous of her relationship with Melbourne, as well as her success as a poet and novelist, he subjected his wife to vicious attacks, verbal and physical. The details of his cruelties are shocking to read, yet as Fraser reminds us, “odious [...] as such attacks might be [...] they were not necessarily against the law at this point”: a woman was her husband’s property, and “a man had a right to treat his own property as he wished.”
In 1836, when Caroline was about to flee the marital home with her three young sons, he struck the most painful blow possible, snatching their children away to his family’s residence and refusing to let them see her. Once again, his actions were perfectly within the law: the doctrine of coverture ensured that a married woman had no legal status - “she does not exist,” as Caroline herself put it - and her husband would automatically receive full custody of any children (they too were considered to be his property). Norton’s next explosive move? To file a case for ‘Criminal Conversation,’ or adultery, suing Melbourne, now the Prime Minister, for damages worth £10,000 (£900,000 today).
The case inevitably became a cause célèbre, with every detail laid out in the press and gobbled up by the public (one day the court was so thronged with onlookers that barristers and witnesses could not make their way inside, where the atmosphere was raucous enough to drown out George’s lawyer’s opening remarks).
Though her virtue was up for debate, Caroline “would have no one to speak on her behalf about the truth or otherwise of this evidence,” unlike her husband and alleged lover. George eventually lost the case (though the pair were certainly close, Fraser assesses their relationship as strictly platonic) but the stain upon his wife’s reputation was indelible. Gossipy scenes from the ‘Crim Con’ trial are strikingly juxtaposed with the relentless heartbreak Caroline seemed to suffer in her personal life: the death of her youngest son under her husband’s neglectful care comes as a gut punch.
After the ignominy of the court case, Fraser notes, “a grave, suffering, silent woman of great beauty and great sadness would have suited society, both close and distant, perfectly” - but Caroline would not stay silent. These painful experiences in her private and public life made her a formidable campaigner, using her literary talents, political connections and soft power to relentlessly - and successfully - lobby to change the laws surrounding custody and divorce. Her first success was the Infant Custody Act of 1839; she went on to shape the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which finally gave married women some (albeit highly circumscribed) legal rights.
Ironically, as her husband, George owned the copyright to her literary work - including her pamphlets railing against the injustices doled out to married women. “Let him claim the copyright of THIS!” she wrote, in one particularly impassioned open letter to Queen Victoria in 1855.
It’s a fascinating story, and Fraser’s account is compulsively readable, filled with intriguing period details (early Victorian aristos’ favourite euphemism for pregnancy, we learn, was “going on the sofa”). The veteran biographer paints Caroline as a very modern woman, but doesn’t try to smooth out her complexities and contradictions to fit her tidily into the mould of 21st century feminism: though the Infant Custody Act was arguably one of the first ever pieces of feminist legislation, Caroline wrote that “masculine superiority is incontestable.”
Was this, Fraser ponders, her actual belief, or was this stance carefully calculated to win over the men in power “in order to bring about practical results in [women’s] actual lives”? It’s hard to tell - though the feminists of her day weren’t particularly keen to count the campaigner as one of their own, put off by the “miasma of scandal” that followed her after the ‘Crim Con’ trial.
Fraser’s 2001 biography of Marie Antoinette went on to inspire Sofia Coppola’s colourful film starring Kirsten Dunst, and her new book would certainly be fertile source material for a costume drama of substance (it has ‘Keira Knightley starring vehicle” written all over it). For now, though, this is a fitting tribute to a captivating, campaigning heroine.
The Case of the Married Woman by Antonia Fraser (W&N, £25)