Monday, November 4, 2013

Hardly a day goes by without a news story about the appalling treatment of women in some far off, "unenlightened" country.  We conveniently forget that not that long ago, women in England had very few rights and were considered to be basically the property of their husbands.  The fascinating book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton takes a look at the woman who took issue with the situation women faced in nineteenth century England and decided to do something about it.  Author Diane Atkinson, who holds a Ph.D. in the field of the politics of women's labor, takes a very detailed look at the life of Caroline Sheridan Norton, and the progress she made toward advancing the rights of women.

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was born in 1808 into the theatrical Sheridan family.  Her father, Thomas Sheridan, was already showing signs of the tuberculosis that would kill him when Caroline was only 9 years old.  His death left her mother, also named Caroline, a widow with 7 children at the age of 37.  Luckily, even though the Sheridan family was somewhat dissolute, with drinking and debts figuring prominently in their lives, they were well-connected.  Tom's old friend the Duke of York was able to secure housing for the widow and children at Hampton Court Palace.  While this sounds rather ritzy, it was in fact something of a last resort for the upper classes.  Charles Dickens wrote how the accommodations were cold, damp and cramped.  Still, it was better than being out on the streets (and I wouldn't mind a Hampton Court Palace address myself, no matter what the circumstances!).  Because of her very poor circumstances, Caroline's mother spent most of her time scrambling to find suitable employment for her sons and advantageous marriages for her daughters. Since the daughters would be entering their marriages penniless, there weren't many takers.  When Caroline was barely 16, she was spotted by George Norton, younger brother to Lord Grantley.  Twenty-one year old George took an immediate liking to Caroline, and asked for her hand in marriage.  Mrs. Sheridan agreed, but stipulated that the couple must wait 3 years to marry.  No doubt she hoped a better offer would come along, but none did, and in 1827 George and Caroline married.  Poor Caroline had little say in the matter, but few girls of her class did at that time.

Caroline was already well-known for her wit, beauty, writing talent and flirtatious ways.  George had trained in the legal profession, but had little ambition to follow that career.  He wanted to make a career as a politician, and had little trouble being elected to Parliament as an "Ultra Tory" -- which was an ultra-conservative branch of the party, whose main objective seemed to be to thwart any attempts at modernization.  George was described as being dull, slow, lazy and always tardy -- in other words, nearly in every way the opposite of his vivacious and intelligent wife.  While "opposites attract" might work out for some, in the Norton marriage, this was a recipe for disaster.

In accordance with the laws at the time, everything Caroline owned before marriage (in this case, not much) became her husband's property.  Additionally, any money she earned also became his.  Because George was not exactly ambitious, throughout their marriage Caroline was the main breadwinner of the family.  She was constantly turning out books of poems, novels and even songs.  In 1831 George lost his seat in Parliament, and he persuaded Caroline to ask their friend William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, who was then Home Secretary, for a job.  He came through with a job for George as a magistrate for Whitechapel.

As their marriage progressed, the Nortons had 3 sons.  George's family took an instant dislike to Caroline and made their views known whenever possible.  George, resentful of his wife's success and popularity, became abusive.  This did not endear him to her family, either.  Finally, Caroline, fed up with the abuse, left her husband in 1835.  He persuaded her to return to him, promising to stop abusing her.  She was pregnant with her fourth child and, believing his promises, returned to him.  The abuse began again, and she lost the baby.  Her brother invited her and the children (but not George, in a pointed snub) to his estate for the Easter holidays.  This, along with his family's goading, persuaded George to lock Caroline out of the house, deprive her of her possessions, and even prevent her from seeing her children.  All of these things were his right as a husband at the time.  Even more damaging, he brought charges against Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, for "criminal conversation" -- basically committing adultery with his wife.  If found guilty, Lord Melbourne would have to pay damages to George.

While the publicity of the trial and the surrounding scandal weren't helpful to his career, Lord Melbourne won the case and George Norton ended up looking like a fool.  This added to his already vindictive nature.  After the trial, Caroline set about trying to gain access to her children, but it was brought home to her how she had absolutely no rights in this matter in the eyes of the law.  Thus began many, many years of legal wrangling with George in an attempt to get him to let her see the children.  At the same time, frustrated by her lack of legal options, she set about to bring the horribly unfair treatment of women and mothers into the public eye.  She published a pamphlet titled "Observations on the Natural Claims of a Mother to the Custody of her Children As Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father," which spelled out her own situation and how unfair the current law was.  This increased support for a bill before Parliament, the Infant Custody Act, which eventually passed in 1839.  It stated that a woman who was divorced or separated who had not been found guilty of adultery could be granted custody of her children who were younger than seven.  However, it was still prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy women to take advantage of this new law, since it required a case to be brought in Chancery Court.  Still, it was a step in the right direction.

Caroline and George continued to wrangle through the courts on issues of child custody and spousal support.  George attempted to get out of paying his wife's debts or much maintenance to her, even though he was legally required to do so.  He also attempted to keep control of a small inheritance she received from her father.  As her sons became older, she was able to spend more time with them, although they had health problems that were a great worry to her.

By 1852, Caroline had slowed her career of writing "fancy things" to concentrate on getting more laws changed.  She published another pamphlet, entitled "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century" which outlined the many instances where married women were discriminated against in the courts.  This helped to influence the reform of the divorce laws, which up to that time were expensive and complex.  Caroline also appealed to Queen Victoria and explained that she was not advocating for equal rights for women, but only interested in obtaining justice for women.

As I expected when I started reading this book, I was greatly disturbed by much of what happened to Caroline Norton during her lifetime.  Married women were unable to retain property or earnings, appear in their own defense in court, sign contracts or divorce their husbands (unless they could prove incest!).  It was hard to believe that such things were considered completely acceptable.  I really hated that she had to go through such terrible ordeals during her lifetime, but thanks to her refusal to accept the status quo, she did a great deal toward advancing the legal rights of women.  We all owe her a debt of gratitude for using her influence as a writer to help change antiquated attitudes and give women more say in their own lives. 

It's amazing how much research must have gone into the writing of this book.  The lives of Caroline Norton and her family are traced and many of her letters (both sent and received) are quoted.  I also enjoyed reading about Caroline's interactions with many notable literary figures of the day, including Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens.

I wish I could have attended this lecture!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton from Chicago Review Press in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Four Gherkins, for being an inspiring look at a pioneer of women's rights


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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