Norton, Caroline

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NORTON, CAROLINE (1808–1877), Anglo-Irish author and campaigner for women's rights.

Caroline Sheridan was the granddaughter of the dramatist and Whig politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) and the daughter of a colonial secretary. She was a beautiful and quick-witted young woman with a good education but no dowry. She married at age nineteen, and the decision was so disastrous that it shaped the remainder of her life and led to the writings and the women's rights campaigns for which she is remembered.

Sheridan married George Norton (1800–1875), who seemed to be a good match—a barrister, a member of Parliament, and the brother of a peer. Norton turned out to be a financially irresponsible alcoholic with a violent temper who began beating his bride during the first weeks of their marriage. Caroline Norton published a startling account of this abuse (English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854), calmly relating experiences such as having a tea-kettle of boiling water set down on her hand, burning and scalding her.

Caroline Norton had few alternatives under early Victorian law. As she reminded the nation in a pamphlet, "A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband." By law she owned no property, and any property she acquired—personal items of clothing, family inheritance, or income—belonged to her husband. She could not legally flee his home, but he had the right to pursue her into any home if she tried. Divorce was virtually impossible, requiring first the approval of the church and then of Parliament; even separation based on cruelty was not permitted if she had "condoned" his behavior by remaining with him.

Norton remained in her abusive marriage for nearly a decade, having three sons with George Norton. When he ruined the family finances, she launched a literary career, publishing successful volumes of poetry in the 1830s and 1840s. Her poetry appealed to the Victorian sense of melodrama and romance, but it also revealed a social conscience—she attacked the abuses of child labor in Voice from the Factories (1836) and the exploitation of the poor in The Child of the Islands (1845).

Norton's life changed dramatically in 1836, following an ugly dispute with her husband over their children. She returned from visiting her family to find that he had removed the children from their home and denied her the right to see them. He demanded separation under his terms—that Caroline receive no financial support and the children reside with him—threatening to seek a divorce by first suing the prime minister, Lord William Lamb Melbourne (1779–1848), for "criminal conversation" (adultery) with her. Caroline refused, and George launched his promised scandal, resulting in an 1836 trial that inspired Charles Dickens (1812–1870) to fictionalize it as Bardell v. Pickwick.

Although Caroline Norton was being publicly shamed as an adulteress, the law did not allow her to speak at the trial. The jury found her innocent without leaving the jury box, but by English law the failure of the adultery case meant that the Nortons could never be divorced. Laws governing infant custody provided that the children would be raised by their father, and the mother could be denied access to them. The final blow to Caroline Norton was that the law still permitted her husband to claim her royalties, as George Norton did in 1848.

Caroline Norton responded with a forceful pamphlet, The Separation of Mother and Child (1838), and used her political connections to press Parliament to reform the law of infant custody. Her pamphlet was intended to educate people about the law. Husbands held "despotic power" to seize children, "even should they be infants at the breast," and entrust them to anyone they wished, even a favorite prostitute. "Is this the vaunted justice—the vaunted mercy of the English code?" Norton asked. Parliament answered with the Infant Custody Act of 1839, recognizing maternal rights but stopping short of modern equality. It allowed mothers to petition the Court of Chancery for access to minor children.

When George Norton sought to seize Caroline's royalties, she had already found security through carefully crafted trusts left to her in the wills of her mother and of Lord Melbourne. She again defended herself with pamphlets about the property rights of married women and the laws of marriage. When Parliament adopted the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, it was the second great advance in women's rights Norton had promoted. This law allowed a wife to obtain a divorce for the adultery of her husband if he were also guilty of cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality. Her campaigns also contributed to the later adoption of the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, although she had no active role in that campaign. Despite her role in three major reforms on behalf of women, Norton never considered herself a champion of equal rights. "What I write is written in no spirit of rebellion; it puts forward no absurd claim of equality; it is simply an appeal for protection."

See alsoFeminism; Marriage and Family.


Primary Sources

Norton, Caroline. The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of "Custody of Infants," Considered. London, 1838. A lengthy excerpt is reprinted in Women, the Family, and Freedom: the Debate in Documents, Vol. 1, edited by Susan G. Bell and Karen M. Offen. Stanford, Calif., 1983.

——. English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century. London, 1854. Reprinted as Caroline Norton's Defense. Chicago, 1982.

——. A Letter to Queen Victoria on Lord Cransorth's Marriage and Divorce Bill. London, 1855. A lengthy excerpt is reprinted in Victorian Women, edited by Erna O. Hellerstein, Leslie P. Hume, and Karen M. Offen. Stanford, Calif., 1981.

Secondary Sources

Gleadle, Kathryn. The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women's Rights Movement, 1831–1851. New York, 1995.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon. Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Steven C. Hause

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