THE CASE OF THE MARRIED WOMAN: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice, by Antonia Fraser
Many modern women may well remember a time when they could not open a bank account, or sign for a mortgage, without a countersignature from their husband or father. Antonia Fraser, in her 90th year, certainly will. What none of us, happily, can remember is the time when married women had no legal status at all. Once a woman married, her legal identity was subsumed into that of her husband. A married woman could not sign a contract, nor draw up a will. She had no debts — which sounds great, until you realize that she could not owe money, because all her money, even that she earned herself, belonged to her husband, as did all her possessions. As did her children.
That this changed was in part due to the heroic campaigning, and the tragic story, of Caroline Norton, as conveyed in Fraser’s new book. She was the granddaughter of the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of “The School for Scandal,” a title that would come to seem all too apt. Born in 1808, 30 years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, she and her two equally beautiful sisters made a stir when they debuted in society. Her sisters married titled men, while Caroline married George Norton, who, while a younger son, had hopes of a title of his own — but would also turn out to be jealous, violent, petty and unremittingly vicious.
Their early married life was relatively smooth. The couple had three children even as their home became a political salon, with the lovely Mrs. Norton at its center. Indeed, as she shone and her husband increasingly took a back seat, he began to feel she was perhaps too much at the center. He may have been happy for his charming wife to use her influence with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to gain George a plum sinecure, but at home, he was less happy that she wielded such influence at all. Similarly, while George was delighted to spend the money Caroline earned as a writer of fashionable novels and verse, he resented that others were more interested in meeting the society author than the surly, laconic magistrate.
Since a wife was the legal property of her husband, and adultery reduced the value of that property, the wife’s lover could be sued for financial compensation.
In 1836, after yet another episode of her husband’s violence, Caroline went to stay with her parents. George moved their children (the youngest not yet 3) to his sister’s house, where he forcibly detained them, refusing Caroline access. He also claimed her earnings as a writer. All this was, at the time, his legal right.