Caroline Sheridan, the daughter of Thomas Sheridan, colonial official, and his wife, Caroline Henrietta Callender Sheridan, was born on 22nd March 1808. Her grandfather was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright and politician. Caroline's father died when she was eight years old, leaving the family in serious financial problems. (1)
For a while Caroline lived with her uncle, the writer, Charles Sheridan. At an early age she developed literary ambitions. She spent time with her uncle and at the age of eleven she wrote: "I invariably left his study with an enthusiastic determination to write a long poem of my own." (2)
Caroline was considered to be a high spirited and rather uncontrollable. "She even looked strange when she was young, with huge dark eyes and a great mass of wild black hair. Her habit of lowering her head and looking at people through her thick black eyelashes was thought of as furtive. People were not comfortable with her nor she with them. In spite of her quick tongue she was actually quite shy." (3)
In 1824, finding her sixteen-year-old daughter too difficult to manage, Mrs Sheridan sent her to a boarding-school at Shalford. The girls at the school were invited to Wonersh Park, the seat of the local landowner, William Norton (Lord Grantley). Caroline was seen by Grantley's younger brother, George Norton, and informed her governess of his intention to propose marriage to her. Norton put his proposal into writing and Caroline's mother accepted his offer but insisted that he waited three years. (4)
Diane Atkinson, the author of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton (2013) has argued that might have been a good reason why Caroline's mother had suggested that Norton should not marry her daughter straight away: "Caroline was horrified at the prospect of marrying a man she barely remembered seeing, but it was her mother's right and duty to secure a husband for her and there had been no other interest. Perhaps Mrs Sheridan was playing for time, hoping someone else would come along." (5)
Mary Shelley, who knew her well, later recalled that she could understand why Norton wanted to marry her: "I never saw a woman I thought so fascinating. Had I been a man I should certainly have fallen in love with her... I would have been spellbound, and had she taken the trouble, she might have wound me round her finger. There is something in the pretty way in which her witticisms glide, as it were, from her lips, that is charming." (6)
Although she did not love Norton, Caroline agreed to help her mother's financial situation by marrying him. The other reason she married Norton was the fear that she would never receive another offer: "The only misfortune I ever particularly dreaded was living and dying a lonely old maid... An old maid is never anyone's first object therefore I object to that situation." (7)
The marriage took place in 1827 when Caroline was nineteen. The marriage was a disaster from the outset, mainly because they were completely incompatible. "George Norton was slow, rather dull, jealous, and obstinate; Caroline was quick-witted, vivacious, flirtatious, and egotistical." They also disagreed passionately about politics. Norton was a hard-line Tory MP, whereas Caroline had developed liberal opinions. (8)
Caroline Norton later recalled: "We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion. This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment."
This violent behaviour continued: "Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of when he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to the door. Mr. Norton locked it, and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards." (9)
Caroline had three children, Fletcher (1829), Brinsley (1831) and William (1833). The couple constantly argued about politics. They disagreed intensely on virtually all the main political issues of the day. Caroline, like her grandfather, was a Whig who favoured extensive social reform. George Norton was the Tory MP from Guildford, who had opposed measures favoured by Caroline such as Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. (10)
Caroline Norton had always been interested in writing and in 1829 her long poem The Sorrows of Rosalie was published. This was followed by The Undying One in 1830. As a result of these poems, Caroline was invited to become editor of La Belle Assemblee and Court Magazine. Her close friends during this period included Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Mary Shelley, Fanny Kemble, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney and Samuel Rogers.
In the 1830 General Election, George Norton lost his seat in the House of Commons. His brother, William Norton, argued that the main reason for this was that he had not been around enough for the voters to see him. Caroline Norton wrote to her sister, suggesting that he was unlucky to be defeated: "He assures me that although thrown out he was the popular candidate... that all those who voted against him did it with tears." (11)
Earl Grey, the leader of the Whigs, became Prime Minister. Norton asked his wife if she could use her contacts with the new administration to obtain for him a well-paid government post. In 1831 Caroline met William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, and he arranged for George Norton to be appointed as a magistrate in the Lambeth Division of the Metropolitan Police Courts, with the generous salary of £1,000 a year. (12)
Lord Melbourne and Caroline Norton became close friends. Melbourne, a widower, had a reputation as a womanizer, and rumours began to circulate about his relationship with Caroline. Melbourne's biographer, Peter Mandler, has pointed out that the relationship "achieved a happiness that had escaped him earlier... it is less likely to have been sexual, but it provided Melbourne with the same emotional reassurance, while allowing him to play mild games of hot-and-cold flirtation and discipline". (13)
Friends pointed out that in her twenties "the dark wildness of her younger days had been replaced by a confidence and control observers found remarkable". Her intellectual abilities also impressed people who met her: "She was bold in her opinions and brilliant in her arguments and never held back from either." (14) Charles Sumner, commented that Caroline Norton combined "the grace and ease of a woman with a strength and skill of which any man might be proud." (15)
George Norton heard rumours about the relationship but did not intervene as he hoped he would benefit from Caroline's friendship with the Home Secretary. Claire Tomalin has argued: "Lord Melbourne was nearly thirty years her senior; his wife (Caroline Lamb) had lately died; and he was a man peculiarly susceptible to the delights of a quasi-paternal relationship. Caroline Norton offered him beauty, charm, a sharp interest in everything that interested him and something like an eighteenth-century sense of fun; more, she idealized him for his urbanity, his power, wealth and well-preserved good looks." (16)
George Norton continued to beat Caroline and after one row in the summer of 1833 she locked herself in the drawing-room. This infuriated George who hurled himself at the door like a battering ram until it not only caved in but the whole framework of the door came away from the wall. Although she was seven months pregnant he "manhandled her down the stairs, punching and slapping her". Eventually, the servants were forced to restrain him. (17)
In 1835 Norton took the opportunity when his wife was visiting her sister to take their three children out of the house, and put them under the charge of a cousin, Miss Vaughan, who refused to let their mother have access to them. Caroline took refuge with her own family, and then found out the dreadful position in which the law placed her. She had nor rights concerning her children, and might never see them again until they were of age, without permission from her husband. (18)
Caroline Norton pointed out that even the money she earned as a writer belonged to her husband: "An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labour, or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes, or keep a school, her salary is the husband's; and he could compel a second payment, and treat the first as void, if paid to the wife without his sanction." (19) However, Caroline Norton was no feminist. She pointed out that "The natural position of woman is inferiority to man… I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality". (20)
Lord Melbourne became prime minister in March, 1835. Norton, who had serious financial problems, told Caroline that he intended to sue Lord Melbourne for adultery. Norton then approached Melbourne and suggested that he should be paid £1,400 to avoid a politically damaging court case. Melbourne, who denied that he had been having a sexual relationship with Caroline, refused to give Norton any money.
George Norton now approached the Tory peer, William Best, 1st Lord Wynford, about the matter. Wynford believed that a sexual scandal involving Melbourne would bring the Whig government down and advised Norton to bring a suit charging the prime minister with "alienating his wife's affections". Norton now began to leak stories to the Tory press. Between March and June, 1835 a number of articles appeared suggesting that Melbourne was having an affair with Caroline. It was also suggested that other progressives such as Thomas Duncombe, Edward Trelawny and William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, had also had affairs with Caroline. (21)
Barnard Gregory, the publisher of The Satirist, took up the case. On 29th May 1836, the newspaper reported that George Norton had known for a long time of "the intimacy subsisting between his Lady and Lord Melbourne". (22) Another newspaper, included not only Caroline but her sisters in all the innuendo and speculated openly about their reputations, mentioning in the process every gentleman who had ever been seen with them." (23)
George Norton told Caroline that he intended to go to court over the issue. When she informed Lord Melbourne of the bad news he claimed that this was the end of his political career. She said that she would never forget "the shrinking from me and my burdensome and embarrassing distress". (24)
Lord Melbourne offered his resignation but William IV refused to accept it. However, he was advised to break off all contact with Caroline Norton. When it became known that Lord Wynford was responsible for Norton's action against Melbourne, even some Tory newspapers defended Melbourne. One Tory was quoted as saying that the case brought "disgrace to our party".
In June 1836 Norton brought a case for criminal conversation between Melbourne and his wife to the courts, suing Melbourne for £10,000 in damages for adultery. The case began on 22nd June 1836. Two of George Norton's servants gave evidence that they believed Caroline and Lord Melbourne had been having an affair. She had been prepared for lies but what appalled her was "the loathsome coarseness and invention of circumstances which made me a shameless wretch." One maid testified that she had been "painting her face and sinning with various gentlemen" in the same week that she gave birth to her third child. (25)
Three letters written by Melbourne to Caroline were presented in court. The contents of the three letters were very brief: (i) "I will call about half past four". (ii) "How are you? I shall not be able to come today. I shall tomorrow." (iii) "No house today. I will call after the levee. If you wish it later let me know. I will then explain about going to Vauxhall." Sir W. Follett, George Norton's counsel, argued that these letters showed "a great and unwarrantable degree of affection, because they did not begin and end with the words My dear Mrs. Norton."
One pamphlet reported: "One of the servants had seen kisses pass between the parties. She had seen Mrs Norton's arm around Lord Melbourne's neck - had seen her hand upon his knee, and herself kneeling in a posture. In that room (her bedroom) Mrs Norton has been seen lying on the floor, her clothes in a position to expose her person. There are other things too which it is my faithful duty to disclose. I allude to the marks from the consequences of the intercourse between the two parties. I will show you that these marks were seen upon the linen of Mrs Norton." (26)
The jury was unimpressed with the evidence presented in court and Follett's constant demands for the "payment of damages to his client" and Norton's witnesses were unreliable. Without calling any of the witnesses who would have proved Caroline's innocence the jury threw the case out. However, the case had destroyed Caroline's reputation and ruined and her friendship with Lord Melbourne. He refused to see her and Caroline wrote to him that it had destroyed her hope of "quietly taking my place in the past with your wife Mrs Lamb." (27)
Despite Norton's defeat in court, he still had the power to deny Caroline access to her children. She pointed out: "After the adultery trial was over, I learnt the law as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure. Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control." (28)
Caroline wrote to Lord Melbourne, who continued to refuse to see her in case it caused another political scandal: "God forgive you, for I do believe no one, young or old, ever loved another better than I loved you... I will do nothing foolish or indiscreet - depend on it - either way it is all a blank to me. I don't much care how it ends... I have always the memory of how you received me that day, and I have the conviction that I have no further power than he allows me, over my boys. You and they were my interests in life. No future can ever wipe out the past - nor renew it." (29)
Caroline wrote a pamphlet explaining the unfairness of this entitled The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father (1837): Caroline argued that under the present law, a father had absolute rights and a mother no rights at all, whatever the behaviour of the husband. In fact, the law gave the husband the legal right to desert his wife and hand over his children to his mistress. For the first time in history, a woman had openly challenged this law that discriminated against women. (30)
Caroline Norton now began a campaign to get the law changed. Sir Thomas Talfourd, the MP for Reading agreed to Caroline's request to introduce a bill into Parliament which allowed mothers, against whom adultery had not been proved, to have the custody of children under seven, with rights of access to older children. "He was driven to do this by some personal experiences of his own, for in the course of his professional career he had twice been counsel for husbands resisting the claims of their wives, and had both times won his case in accordance with law and in violation of his sense of justice." (31)
Talfourd told Caroline about the case of Mrs Greenhill, "a young woman of irreproachable virtue". A mother of three daughters aged two to six, she found out her husband was living in adultery with another woman. She applied to the Ecclesiastical Court for a divorce. At the courts of King's Bench it was decided that she wife must not only deliver up the children, but that the husband had a right to debar the wife of all access to them. The Vice-Chancellor said that "however bad and immoral Mr Greenhill's conduct might be... the Court of Chancery had no authority to interfere with the common law right of the father, and no power to order that Mrs. Greenhill should even see her children". (32)
Talfourd highlighted the Greenhill case in the debate that took place over his proposed legislation. The bill was passed in the House of Commons in May 1838 by 91 to 17 votes (a very small attendance in a house of 656 members). Lord Thomas Denman, who was also the judge in the Greenhill case, made a passionate speech in favour of the bill in the House of Lords. Denman argued: "In the case of King v Greenhill, which was decided in 1836 before myself and the rest of the judges of the Court of the King's Bench, I believe there was not one judge who did not feel ashamed of the state of the law, and that it was such as to render it odious in the eyes of the country." (33)
Despite this speech the House of Lords rejected the bill by two votes. Very few members bothered to attend the debate that took place in the early hours of the morning. Caroline Norton remarked bitterly: "You cannot get Peers to sit up to three in the morning listening to the wrongs of separated wives." (34)
Talfourd was disgusted by the vote and published this response: "Because nature and reason point out the mother as the proper guardian of her infant child, and to enable a profligate, tyrannical, or irritated husband to deny her, at his sole and uncontrolled caprice, all access to her children, seems to me contrary to justice, revolting to humanity, and destructive of those maternal and filial affections which are among the best and surest cements of society." (35)
Caroline Norton now wrote another pamphlet, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Law of Custody of Infants. A copy was sent to every member of Parliament and in 1839 Talfourd tried again. The opponents of the proposed legislation spread rumours that Talfourd and Caroline "were lovers and that he had only became involved with the issue because of their sexual intimacy". (36)
The journal, The British and Foreign Review published a long and insulting attack in which it called Caroline Norton a "she devil" and a "she beast" and "coupled her name with Mr Talfourd in a most impertinent way." Norton wanted to prepare a legal action only to discover that as a married woman, she could not sue. She later wrote: "I have learned the law respecting married women piecemeal, by suffering every one of its defects of protection". (37)
Sir Thomas Talfourd reintroduced the bill in 1839. It was passed by the Commons and this time he received the help in the Lords from John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst. "By the law of England, as it now stood, the father had an absolute right to the custody of his children, and to take them from the mother. However pure might be the conduct of the mother - however amiable, however correct in all the relations of life, the father might, if he thought proper, exclude her from all access to the children, and might do this from the most corrupt motives. He might be a man of the most profligate habits; for the purpose of extorting money, or in order to induce her to concede to his profligate conduct, he might exclude her from all access to their common children, and the course of law would afford her no redress: That was the state of the law as it at present existed. Need he state that it was a cruel law - that it was unnatural - that it was tyrannous - that it was unjust?" (38)
The main opposition came from George Norton's friend, William Best, 1st Lord Wynford. He argued that the proposed bill went against the best interests of men: "To give the custody of the child to the father, and to allow access to it by the mother, was to injure the child for it was natural to expect that the mother would not instill into the child any respect for the husband whom she might hate or despise. The effects of such a system would be most mischevious to the child, and would prevent its being properly brought up. If the husband was a bad man, the access to the children might not do harm, but where the fault lay with the wife, or where she was of a bad disposition, she could seriously injure its future prospects.... In his belief, where the measure, as it stood, would relieve one woman, it would ruin 100 children". (39)
Despite the protests of some politicians, the Custody of Children Act was passed in August 1839. "This act gave custody of children under seven to the mother (provided she had not been proven in court to have committed adultery) and established the right of the non-custodial parent to access to the child. The act was the first piece of legislation to undermine the patriarchal structures of English law and has subsequently been hailed as the first success of British feminism in gaining equal rights for women". (40)
Although the law had been passed George Norton still refused to let Caroline see her children. The new law applied only in England and Wales and so he therefore sent them all to a school in Scotland, knowing that they were now out of the jurisdiction of the English Courts. Norton also paid for people to spy on Caroline in the hope that he could acquire the evidence that she was involved in an adulterous relationship. (41)
In September 1842, eight year old William Norton was thrown from his pony while out riding with his brother. He cut his arm and although the injury was not serious, it was not treated, and he fell gravely ill with blood poisoning. Caroline was eventually sent for but by the time she arrived William was dead. It was only after this tragedy that George Norton was willing to let the two remaining children, Fletcher and Brinsley, to live with their mother. (42)
However, there were conditions attached. Caroline was not allowed to have a relationship with another man. George Norton retained the right to take them away from her whenever he wanted. Caroline wrote that she was in "fear and trembling" that he would take the children away again. She had to carry on "married", as she put it "to a man's name but never to know the protection of this nominal husband... never to feel or show preference for any friend not of my own sex." (43)
Caroline was now in a position to spend more time writing. One of the first factory reform poems, A Voice from the Factories (1836) and The Dream and Other Poems (1840) had received good reviews. One critic described her as the "Byron of Modern Poetesses". In 1845 Caroline published her most ambitious poem, The Child of the Islands. Written in honour of the Prince of Wales, the poem warns the infant prince never to forget the poor who are exploited by a privileged upper class.
Caroline Norton took great pride in her writing. In the preface of one of her novels she explained: "The power of writing has always been to me a source of intense pleasure... It has been my best solace in hours of gloom; and the name I have earned as an author in my native land is the only happy boast of my life." (44) She also admitted that in a good year she earned £1,400 by her writings. (45)
In 1848 George Norton was short of money. Many years previously Norton had set up a Trust Fund for Caroline Norton and his sons. He needed permission to get access to this money and offered George a deal. This involved a deed of separation and paying Caroline £600 a year in return for him to be allowed to draw money from the Trust Fund.
Lord Melbourne died in November, 1848. He made a deathbed declaration that he had not had a sexual relationship with Caroline Norton. He also left instructions to his relatives to make financial provision for her. In June, 1851, Caroline's mother died leaving her £480 a year. When he found out about these inheritances, George decided to end his payment of £600 to his wife. (46)
Caroline Norton now broke her agreement by referring her creditors to her husband. As a result a court case began on 18th August, 1853, when Thrupps, the carriage-makers, sued George Norton for £47. The case hinged on the 1848 deed of separation. In court, George Norton, maintained he had only offered £600 a year on condition Caroline had no money from other sources such as Lord Melbourne. Caroline easily exposed this as a lie, but the court decided in George's favour as it was illegal for a married woman to make a contract. (47)
George Norton wrote to The Times where he once again accused his wife of having an affair with Lord Melbourne. As a result of this intervention his solicitor wrote to the newspaper disassociating himself from what his client had said. Sir John Bayley, a leading judge, also joined the debate and accused Norton of being dishonest and greedy. Norton replied that Bayley was "infatuated" with his wife. (48)
In 1851 Norton's novel, Stuart of Dunleath: A Story of Modern Times, a story based on her own experiences, was highly praised by the critics. In the novel she condemns adultery and it is claimed that when a man burst into her bedroom with the words "adultery is a crime, not a recreation". Claire Tomalin has argued that "she was so disappointed and disgusted with her experience of sex within marriage as to lack any wish at all to embark on extra-marital ventures of that kind." (49)
Ernest Sackville Turner has argued that the "Common Law of England, in the early part of the 19th century the nineteenth century, granted a wife fewer rights than had been accorded to under the later Roman law, and hardly more than had been conceded to an African slave before emancipation... The husband... owned her body, her property, her savings, her personal jewels and her income, whether they lived together or separately." Turner goes on to point out, that the husband "could legally support his mistress on the earnings of his wife". (50)
John Stuart Mill, the Radical MP for Westminster, was one of the few men who was willing to speak up for women: "She can acquire no property, but for the husband: the instant it becomes hers, even if by inheritance, it becomes ipso facto his... This is her legal state. And from this state she has no means to withdraw herself. If she leaves her husband she can take nothing with her, neither her children nor anything which is rightfully her own. If he chooses he can compel her to return by law, or by physical force; or he may content himself with seizing for his own use anything which she may earn or which may be given to her by her relations. It is only separation by a decree of a court of justice which entitles her to live apart without being forced back into the custody of an exasperated jailer." (51)
In 1850 a Royal Commission had recommended that the government took a look into the workings of the Divorce Law. Robert Rolfe, 1st Baron Cranworth, took up the challenge and when he was appointed Lord Chancellor he began to draw up new legislation. Caroline Norton contacted Cranworth and requested that he included a clause that would ensure that wives could retain their own property after marriage.
Barbara Leigh Smith, the daughter of Benjamin Leigh Smith, the Radical MP for Norwich, joined the campaign, and published Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854). It included the following passage: "A man and wife are one person in law; the wife loses all her rights as a single woman, and her existence is entirely absorbed in that of her husband. He is civilly responsible for her acts; she lives under his protection or cover, and her condition is called coverture. A woman's body belongs to her husband; she is in his custody, and he can enforce his right by a writ of habeas corpus." (52)
As part of her campaign she published the pamphlet, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854). She explained that after years of experiencing violence from her husband she was unable to obtain a divorce: "I consulted whether a divorce 'by reason of cruelty' might not be pleaded for me; and I laid before my lawyers the many instances of violence, injustice, and ill-usage, of which the trial was but the crowning example. I was then told that no divorce I could obtain would break my marriage; that I could not plead cruelty which I had forgiven; that by returning to Mr Norton I had 'condoned' all I complained of. I learnt, too, the law as to my children – that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them – for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney." (53)
Caroline Norton also wrote a letter to Queen Victoria complaining about the position of women in regards to divorce. "If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself. She has no means of proving the falsehood of his allegations... If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband, however profligate he may be. No law court can divorce in England. A special Act of Parliament annulling the marriage, is passed for each case. The House of Lords grants this almost as a matter of course to the husband, but not to the wife. In only four instances (two of which were cases of incest), has the wife obtained a divorce to marry again." (54)
A group of women, including Barbara Leigh Smith, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett and Dorothea Beale, organised a petition demanding equal legal rights with men. The petition signed by 26,000 men and women was submitted to Parliament. It was accepted by John Stuart Mill in the House of Commons and Lord Henry Brougham in the House of Lords. "The subject was almost entirely new to public consideration, and, as was natural, the feeling both in support of and in opposition to change was very strong. It would disrupt society, people said; it would destroy the home, and turn women into loathsome, self-assertive creatures no one could live with." (55)
The proposed Marriage and Divorce Act was discussed at great length in 1857. William Ewart Gladstone, the future leader of the Liberal Party, was a strong opponent of the bill as he saw it as undermining the authority of the Church. He made seventy-three interventions against the bill, twenty-nine of them in the course of one protracted sitting. However, he was in a small minority and could only gain the support of a "few dozen votes". (56)
In the House of Lords, John Bird Sumner, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, both supported the measure and became law in January, 1858. Its main purpose was to transfer jurisdiction on divorce from Parliament and the ecclesiastical courts to a new tribunal. This simplified proceedings and radically lowered divorce costs, thereby making it available to a larger section of the population. Actions for "criminal conversations" were abolished. (57)
The new law did not treat men and women on a equal basis. A man could divorce a woman if she was "guilty of adultery". However, the woman could only obtain a divorce if she could show that "her husband has been guilty of incestuous adultery, or of bigamy with adultery, or of rape, or of sodomy or bestiality, or of adultery coupled with such cruelty as without adultery would have entitled her to a divorce, or of adultery coupled with desertion, without reasonable excuse, for two years or upwards." (58)
Four of the causes in the new act were based on Caroline Norton's experiences as a married woman. (Clause 21) A wife deserted by her husband might be protected if the possession of her earnings from any claim of her husband upon them. (Clause 24) The courts were able to direct payment of separate maintenance to a wife or to her trustee. (Clause 25) A wife was able to inherit and bequeath property like a single woman. (Clause 26) A wife separated from her husband was given the power of contract and suing, and being sued, in any civil proceeding. (59)
For over twenty-five years Caroline had been a close friend of Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. However, George Norton refused to give his wife a divorce and so was prevented from living with him. This situation changed when George died and in 1877 Caroline Norton, now aged 69, married Stirling-Maxwell. Unfortunately, Caroline died three months later.
We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that "I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion." This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment.
Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of when he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to the door. Mr. Norton locked it, and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards...
On another occasion, some time before the birth of my youngest son, I being at breakfast, and my eldest child playing about the room, Mr Norton entered; he desired me to rise and leave the place I was sitting in, as it faced the park, and it amused him to see the people pass by. I demurred, and said I was not well, and that he should have come down earlier if he had any fancy or choice about places. We had no other word of dispute. Mr Norton then deliberately took the tea-kettle, and set it down upon my hand; I started up from the pain, and was both burnt and scalded. I ran up to the nursery, and the nurse got the surgeon who lived next door to come in and dress my hand, which remained bound up and useless for days. When this was over, I enquired where Mr Norton was? and received for reply, that after I had been hurt, he had simply desired the servant to "brush the crumbs away," in the place he had desired me to yield; had then sat down there and breakfasted; and had since gone out–without one word of apology or enquiry.
One of the servants had seen kisses pass between the parties. She had seen Mrs Norton's arm around Lord Melbourne's neck - had seen her hand upon his knee, and herself kneeling in a posture. In that room (her bedroom) Mrs Norton has been seen lying on the floor, her clothes in a position to expose her person. There are other things too which it is my faithful duty to disclose. I allude to the marks from the consequences of the intercourse between the two parties. I will show you that these marks were seen upon the linen of Mrs Norton.
As to petitioning, no one dislikes begging more than I do, especially when one begs for what seems mere justice; but I have long observed that though people will resist claims (however just), they like to do favours. Therefore, when I beg I am a crawling lizard, a humble toad, a brown snake in cold weather. My meaning is, that if one asks at all, one should rather think of the person written to than one's own feelings. Do not write as "the daughter of the late Mr. Godwin". Press not on the politics of Mr. Godwin (for God knows how much gratitude for that ever survives).
I still feel stunned by this sudden blow. He died conscious; he prayed, and asked for me twice. He did not fear to die, and he bore the dreadful spasms of pain with a degree of courage which the doctor says he has rarely seen in so young a child. It is not in the strength of human nature not to think, "This might not have happened had I watched over them!". My poor little spirited creature was too young to rough it alone, as he was left to do; and this is the end of it! When I first came down Mr. Norton was in bitter distress, and he comforted me with promises for the other boys - for those that remain. But his impressions are so weak and so wavering that I only tremble.
After the adultery trial was over, I learnt the law as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure. Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control.
My youngest child, then a boy of eight year old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbour. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week - indeed to be at death's door - before he sent to inform me. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said "I am here - is my boy better?" "No", she said "he is not better - he is dead." And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined."
Lord Melbourne was nearly thirty years her senior; his wife (Caroline Lamb) had lately died; and he was a man peculiarly susceptible to the delights of a quasi-paternal relationship. Caroline Norton offered him beauty, charm, a sharp interest in everything that interested him and something like an eighteenth-century sense of fun; more, she idealized him for his urbanity, his power, wealth and well-preserved good looks. "Dearest Lord," she wrote when they were apart; or "Will of the Wisp", when his expected letter failed; "Pet Lamb", she told him, was her sister's name for him. And he wrote to her, "I have been in despair today at not seeing you."
Crisis came in 1836 when the petty but violent quarrels between Mr and Mrs Norton - unconnected with Lord Melbourne - became too much for either of them to bear, and she left home. George removed her three sons and, probably egged on by Tory advisers, brought a suit against the Prime Minister for criminal conversation (i.e., adultery) with Caroline. She found herself deprived of her children, whom she loved passionately, and equally deprived of Lord Melbourne, who, from the moment scandal threatened, withdrew, advising her (by post for the most part) to return to her husband, terrified lest she should try to compromise him.
The bill had come again up to their Lordships, having passed the House of Commons by a majority greater than on a former occasion; and he thought, therefore, considering the sanction it had received - considering that their Lordships could hardly be considered as having expressed any opinion upon it, he came to the consideration of this question without any prejudice against it, and he was sure that on entering upon the subject it would receive their most anxious consideration. The first point to consider was, what was the state of the law with respect to the subject to which this bill applied? By the law of England, as it now stood, the father had an absolute right to the custody of his children, and to take them from the mother. However pure might be the conduct of the mother - however amiable, however correct in all the relations of life, the father might, if he thought proper, exclude her from all access to the children, and might do this from the most corrupt motives. He might be a man of the most profligate habits; for the purpose of extorting money, or in order to induce her to concede to his profligate conduct, he might exclude her from all access to their common children, and the course of law would afford her no redress: That was the state of the law as it at present existed. Need he state that it was a cruel law - that it was unnatural - that it was tyrannous - that it was unjust? When he said that it was a cruel law, who was it that knew the love a mother had to her offspring, the delight she received in their smiles, the interest she took in all their sorrows, and the happiness she had in the superintendence of them; who did not agree with him in saying, that to deprive her of all this from base motives was one of the most cruel inflictions that could be put on her?
His noble and learned Friend had truly said, that the custody of the children belonged by law to the father. That was a wise law, for the father was responsible for the rearing up of the child; but when unhappy differences separated the father and mother, to give the custody of the child to the father, and to allow access to it by the mother, was to injure the child for it was natural to expect that the mother would not instill into the child any respect for the husband whom she might hate or despise. The effects of such a system would be most mischevious to the child, and would prevent its being properly brought up. If the husband was a bad man, the access to the children might not do harm, but where the fault lay with the wife, or where she was of a bad disposition, she could seriously injure its future prospects. These were objections which would prevent him giving his support to the bill in its present shape. If, instead of this bill, his noble and learned Friend would bring in a bill to lessen the expense of debarring the profligate father from exercising authority over his children, he would readily join his noble and learned Friend; but he thought they ought also to prevent the improper access of an angry woman to the children of her husband. In his belief, where the measure, as it stood, would relieve one woman, it would ruin 100 children.
I connect your Majesty's name with these pages... for two reasons: of which one, indeed, is a sequence to the other. First, because I desire to point out the grotesque anomaly which ordains that married women shall be "non-existent" in a country governed by a female Sovereign; and secondly, because, whatever measure for the reform of these statutes may be proposed, it cannot become "the law of the land" without your Majesty's assent and sign manual. In England there is no Salique law. If there were, if the principles which guide all legislation for the inferior sex in this country, were carried out in their integrity as far as the throne, your Majesty would be by birth a subject, and Hanover and England would be still under one King.
It is not so. Your Majesty is Queen of England; Head of the Church; Head of the Law; Ruler of millions of men; and the assembled Senate who meet to debate and frame legislative enactments in each succeeding year, begin their sessional labours by reverently listening to that clear woman's voice, rebellion against whose command is treason....
A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation of desertion cannot alter this position. Unless divorced by special enactment in the House of Lords, the legal fiction holds her to be "one" with her husband, even though she may never see or hear of him.
She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property. Lord Ellenborough mentions a case in which a sailor bequeathed "all he was worth" to a woman he cohabited with; and afterwards married, in the West Indies, a woman of considerable fortune. At this man's death it was held, notwithstanding the hardship of the case, that the will swept away from his widow, in favour of his mistress, every shilling of the property. It is now provided that a will shall be revoked by marriage: but the claim of the husband to all that is his wife's exists in full force. An English wife has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases, even though they be the gifts of relatives or friends, or bought before marriage.
An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit; she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter: the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid.
An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labour, or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes, or keep a school, her salary is the husband's; and he could compel a second payment, and treat the first as void, if paid to the wife without his sanction.
An English wife may not leave her husband's house. Not only can he sue her for "restitution of conjugal rights," but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge, and who may "harbour her," as it is termed, and carry her away by force, with or without the aid of the police.
If the wife sue for separation for cruelty, it must be "cruelty that endangers life or limb," and if she has once forgiven, or, in legal phrase, "condoned" his offences, she cannot plead them; though her past forgiveness only proves that she endured as long as endurance was possible.
If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself. She has no means of proving the falsehood of his allegations. She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for "damages."
If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband a vinculo, however profligate he may be. No law court can divorce in England. A special Act of Parliament annulling the marriage, is passed for each case. The House of Lords grants this almost as a matter of course to the husband, but not to the wife. In only four instances (two of which were cases of incest), has the wife obtained a divorce to marry again.
She cannot prosecute for a libel. Her husband must prosecute; and in cases of enmity and separation, of course she is without a remedy.
She cannot sign a lease, or transact responsible business.
She cannot claim support, as a matter of personal right, from her husband. The general belief and nominal rule is, that her husband is "bound to maintain her." That is not the law. He is not bound to her. He is bound to his [Page 12] country; bound to see that she does not cumber the parish in which she resides. If it be proved that means sufficient are at her disposal, from relatives or friends, her husband is quit of his obligation, and need not contribute a farthing: even if he have deserted her; or be in receipt of money which is hers by inheritance.
She cannot bind her husband by any agreement, except through a third party. A contract formally drawn out by a lawyer, witnessed, and signed by her husband, is void in law; and he can evade payment of an income so assured, by the legal quibble that "a man cannot contract with his own wife."
Separation from her husband by consent, or for his ill usage, does not alter their mutual relation. He retains the right to divorce her after separation, as before, though he himself be unfaithful.
Her being, on the other hand, of spotless character, and without reproach, gives her no advantage in law. She may have withdrawn from his roof knowing that he lives with "his faithful housekeeper": having suffered personal violence at his hands; having "condoned" much, and being able to prove it by unimpeachable testimony: or he may have shut the doors of her house against her: all this is quite immaterial: the law takes no cognisance of which is to blame. As her husband, he has a right to all that is hers: as his wife, she has no right to anything that is his. As her husband, he may divorce her (if truth or false swearing can do it): as his wife, the utmost "divorce" she could obtain, is permission to reside alone, married to his name. The marriage ceremony is a civil bond for him, and an indissoluble sacrament for her; and the rights of mutual property which that ceremony is ignorantly supposed to confer, are made absolute for him, and null for her.