Some people are born to be activists, others are forced into politics by circumstances beyond their control. This is the case with Caroline Norton.
She was born in 1808 to an impoverished but genteel family. At the age of nineteen, she was encouraged by her widowed mother to marry George Norton. She had been assured he would make a good match and be a good provider for her and her children. Unfortunately, George had misrepresented his earnings and once married Caroline discovered that he had virtually no income, was lazy and did not like to work. Luckily, Caroline was a gifted writer and was able to support them with her publications. In 1830, at the request of her husband, Caroline asked an old family friend and Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, to find George a position.
By all accounts George was a womanising drunk who frequently beat Caroline. The couple had three sons, but during her fourth pregnancy, sometime in 1835, he beat her so badly she miscarried. This was the last straw, she left taking the children with her and sought refuge with her family. This was when she discovered that married women did not exist according to English law. Legally, everything they owned as a couple belonged to George that included;
Her personal items,
Her writings – professional and personal,
Any income she earned,
And most importantly – the children.
In 1836, he took the children and refused her access to them. He then sought a divorce, accusing her of adultery with Lord Melbourne who was now the British Prime Minister. George also sued Lord Melbourne for ten thousand pounds in damages. (Talk about a grab for the cash.) George had encouraged Caroline’s friendship with Melbourne when he wanted a job, but now he wanted to use that friendship to his own ends. The courts threw out the case, declaring Caroline innocent, but her reputation was tarnished and she was branded as a scandalous woman. Worse the fact that the courts had denied George’s claim of adultery meant that she had to remain married to him. Under English law she could not file for divorce, because her husband beat her, he had every right to abuse her because she belonged to him. And she could not claim guardianship of her children or request access to them. In effect she was a non-person.
Caroline did the only thing she could do; she set about trying to change the law. She published pamphlets and essays stating her case and asking that the law be changed. I should point out that many of her supporters were men. In 1839 The Custody of Infants Act was passed with the help of men like Thomas Talfourd, Lord Lyndhurston, and Lord Vassall Holland who spoke on behalf of mistreated women, citing cases, and actively crusading for the bill to be passed.
In reaction George took the children to Scotland which had a different system of laws and so were exempt from English law. In 1842 tragedy struck when their youngest son, William, contracted tetanus. Caroline was unable to reach him before he died. This is overwhelmingly sad and must have touched George, because he finally relented and allowed Caroline to visit her remaining two children, although he still refused to give up custody.
The pair continued to fight over money. George tricked her into signing a financial agreement and then reneged on it. There was nothing she could do because under the law she had no separate identity from her husband. This led Caroline to write and petition for a law allowing women to divorce, and keep their earnings. She stated publicly that as her husband was entitled to all her wages she would only write about the need to change the marriage laws. In 1857 the Divorce Act was passed. It was a beginning and provided some legal protection for divorced, separated, and deserted women.
Caroline finally became free of George when he died in 1875. She married lifelong friend Sir William Stirling-Maxwell in 1877, but died three months after her wedding.
It is unfortunate that Caroline had to suffer for the laws to be changed. But at the same time I’m grateful that she found the strength to fight the unjust system of laws that viewed women as property rather than people.
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