The Story of Caroline Norton: From Domestic Abuse Victim to Women’s Rights Champion
I want to share with you the interesting story of Caroline Norton, an important 19th century author and social reformer whose experiences of domestic abuse and activism for the women of Victorian Britain have been largely forgotten. Before I begin though, it’ll be useful to touch on the status of women at the time. To put it bluntly, Victorian Britain was the epitome of a patriarchal society. Women lived as second-class citizens who didn’t have even a fraction of the rights and freedoms that men did (e.g. the right to vote, attend university, etc.) Once a woman married, her existence was ‘absorbed’ by that of her husband (so all that was hers became his), leaving her under his complete control. As you’ll see, this was especially hard for women like Caroline who were stuck in abusive marriages.
Caroline was born in London on 22nd March 1808 to Thomas Sheridan and Caroline Callander. As one of the three famous Sheridan sisters, she was an accomplished and well-connected society beauty, known for her rather unorthodox behaviour and frankness. During her youth, Caroline’s rebellious nature became a real issue for her mother who, unable to control her, sent her to a boarding school when she was sixteen years old. It was during her time there that Caroline met her future husband, George Norton, who she married three years later in 1827. And so her troubles began.
Marriage & Separation
It was clear from early on that the marriage was doomed, with the main reason for this being their incompatibility. Even in their political alliances they were opposites; Caroline came from a Whig background, whilst George was staunchly Tory. They frequently argued about money, and when George was unable to afford a decent living, Caroline began publishing her works to support them. Nevertheless, they had three sons: Fletcher (b. 1829), Brinsley (b. 1831) and William (b. 1833). George was an abusive, controlling husband who was jealous of Caroline’s social popularity, though this didn’t stop him from encouraging her to use her connections to further his career. According to Caroline herself, the physical and emotional abuse began after their honeymoon and continued throughout their marriage. On one day, when she was heavily pregnant:
‘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 … 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.’
Even Caroline’s pregnancy didn’t deter George from attacking her. On this particular occasion, he seriously harmed her just so that she would give up her seat to him. On another occasion soon after, Caroline had locked herself and her maid in the drawing room to write safely away from George, but he followed her there and became violent again when she refused to let him in, fearing for her safety. George broke down the door and ‘gave way to the most frantic rage, blew out the candles, flung the furniture about,’ and then went for Caroline directly, though the servants eventually intervened. After this episode, Caroline presented George with an ultimatum through her brother; this being ‘that unless he would undertake to be “gentlemanlike,”’ she would leave him. Although George tried to justify his behaviour as a husband, he did apologise to her and asked that she forgive him. Caroline decided to remain with him but unsurprisingly, the abuse didn’t stop. On yet another occasion, during a tour of Germany with Caroline’s family, an argument arose when she asked George to stop smoking in their confined carriage, which escalated quickly and resulted in George fiercely strangling her, until she managed to slip out of his grasp. For her own protection, Caroline had to ask someone from her family to travel with her and George in their carriage. In 1835, when Caroline was pregnant with their fourth child, George beat her so badly that she miscarried.
Finally, in 1836, Caroline left her husband for good, though she now faced a new set of troubles. Not only did George have no intention of separating quietly, Caroline also had to contend with child custody laws that were decidedly in favour of the father. On top of this, divorces were still disapproved of and uncommon at the time; aside from adultery being the only acceptable reason behind them, divorces were decided on by ecclesiastical courts until the mid-nineteenth century (and we all know how the Church feels about divorce). Yet, even after the shift to civil courts, divorce laws were still unfairly in favour of men.
As part of their messy separation, George sued a close friend of Caroline’s, Lord Melbourne — who was also the Whig prime minister at the time — for adultery (criminal conversation). Before doing this, he personally approached Melbourne and attempted to blackmail him, as George knew that any accusations of adultery against the prime minister would cause a major scandal with potentially disastrous consequences. Still, Melbourne refused to pay him any money so George took him to court. By this point, George and his Tory peers were using the Nortons’ separation to alter the politics of Britain. They believed that this scandal would ultimately bring down the current Whig government, but their scheming proved to be fruitless as the case was dismissed in court. Unfortunately, despite Melbourne’s acquittal, the damage to Caroline’s reputation had already been done by her husband’s slandering of her to the Tory press.
Even though both George and Caroline re-attempted to divorce, their attempts were rejected. Being both a lawyer and magistrate, George was well aware of his legal rights and used his expertise for his own benefit. Aside from keeping all of Caroline’s property that she had left behind, he kept her earnings for himself and was able to fully claim the legacy that Caroline’s father had left her, as it was not properly secured to her separately. In response, Caroline used the law to her own advantage by running up bills in George’s name, which he was obliged to pay as her husband. However, as a devoted mother, the worst part of the separation for her was George’s refusal to allow her access to their children. This pushed her to take a stand and start her campaign for women’s rights.
Caroline began by writing her first political pamphlet, Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father(1837), which argued for some changes to child custody laws. Caroline also managed to convince the progressive MP Thomas Talfourd to introduce a bill in parliament that would allow mothers the right to appeal for custody of children under 7 years old. This bill was eventually rejected, pushing Caroline to write another pamphlet, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill (1839). So that it was considered objectively, she signed it under the pseudonym Pearce Stevenson, Esq., knowing that she would have a better chance of success if it was thought that a man, rather than a woman, was behind it. In this pamphlet, Caroline protests against the unjust laws that gave the father absolute custody over the children in the event of separation:
‘… the custody of the father must, from nature of circumstance, be purely nominal; while he is obliged to provide it with a nurse, or some other substitute for its banished mother; in short, during that period of its life which God and nature point out as only fit for female care and tenderness — the right of the male parent shall be strictly enforced and supported; so strictly, indeed, that the mother who attempts to retain a child against her husband’s will is liable to imprisonment …’
Put simply, she points out that only the rights of fathers are protected, regardless of the laws of nature and God which dictate that only women are appropriate for the care of children, until they reach a certain age. Caroline presented a strong argument, and it paid off; the Infant Custody Act was made law in 1839, granting mothers (who were not guilty of adultery) access to their children, and custody of those under 7 years old. It was a limited reform but still a step forward in the progression of women’s rights in Britain. Any feelings of victory for Caroline were short-lived however, as the law only applied in England, Ireland and Wales, and George was able to evade it by sending their children to Scotland, where English courts had no jurisdiction. A few years later, in 1842, their youngest son, William, was injured and later died after falling off his horse. After this, George granted Caroline more access to their children, though under supervision.
In 1848, George proposed a financial agreement to Caroline, which she accepted. As part of the agreement, Caroline received maintenance money from George, and she paid her own bills. Yet, despite the contract they had made, he broke the agreement in 1852, much to Caroline’s dismay. George’s determination to rescind the contract was successful, since married women were not allowed to make contracts in the first place. When he stopped her maintenance, Caroline responded by sending him an outstanding bill, but he refused to pay it. The matter was taken to court and it was decided that Caroline should pay it.
Appalled by her situation as a separated wife, and the sexist laws that allowed it, Caroline resolved to take action once more by pushing for reforms in marriage and property laws. To do this she turned to writing again, publishing English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and later, A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill (1855). In these works, Caroline shares details of her turbulent marriage and separation, sheds light on the struggles of married women in the event of estrangement from their husbands, and puts forward ideas for change, in the hope that she could sway opinions to her cause. Ultimately, she was successful; the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed in 1857, and while it still didn’t treat women and men equally, it did contain a number of reforms that were directly influenced by Caroline’s experiences. Women in similar situations to Caroline were no longer defenceless against their abusive husbands, as they now had the right to:
- sue for divorce (though women could only sue if they proved ‘aggravated adultery,’ while men only had to prove adultery alone)
- keep their own earnings and property
- inherit and bequeath property (like a single woman could)
- receive maintenance from their ex-husband, as decided by the court
- regain a legal identity (form a contract, sue or be sued in civil courts, etc.)
While Caroline is a lesser-known historical figure, the significance of her reforms should not be underestimated. For the first time, separated wives obtained legal rights and were recognised, by law, as separate beings from their husbands. This set the stage for subsequent reforms — such as the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 (also influenced by Caroline) — that contributed to the growth of women’s rights, which developed into the widespread movement of (first-wave) feminism in the late 19th century. It must be said, however, that Caroline was no feminist. Like many of her contemporaries, although she was an advocate of particular women’s rights, Caroline believed that women were naturally inferior to men.
Sadly, Caroline was never able to divorce George, even though they remained separated for the rest of their lives. After he died in 1875, Caroline (now 69 years old) was finally free to marry her old friend, William Shirling-Maxwell, in 1877. She died just 3 months later on 15th June 1877.