Caroline Norton and the first challenge to the male dominance of English law

June 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

“I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence.”

Caroline Norton, who wrote this dynamite sentence, knew the power of the pen. Indeed, she lived in a time when it was her only weapon, and she used it well. Doing so brought her a measure of personal satisfaction, but it also changed the life of every woman who lived in England after her.

Norton was born in 1808, the daughter of an actor (her father) and a novelist (her mother), and into a family that had access to the upper reaches of English society. Her early life had the prospect of being comfortable and genteel.

So it seemed when George Norton proposed marriage. Norton was a younger brother of an important family and appeared to have wealth and status. In fact, he had neither. The marriage occurred in 1827 when Caroline was 19 years old. It did not take long for those involved to realize that it was a disaster.

George Norton was a slow, dull-witted, jealous, and obstinate husband. He seemed to be the exact opposite of his wife. He soon became violent with Caroline, and that violence continued throughout the time that they were together.

Caroline bore three children, but disagreements between the couple, particularly about politics, were always at the surface of the relationship. Even though George was jealous of his wife and her abilities to make friends, he prevailed upon her to ask her political friends to help him secure a position in the government.

One of those friends was Lord Melbourne. Lord Melbourne had a reputation as a womanizer and his frequent visits with Caroline provoked rumors about the relationship. Nevertheless, he helped to secure a position for George, but the jealous husband repaid his efforts with continued physical violence against his wife and eventually with a lawsuit charging Melbourne with “criminal conversation” with Caroline.

Both Melbourne and Caroline denied that there was ever any sexual relationship, and the jury that heard the lawsuit in 1836 ruled in Melbourne’s favor. Unfortunately for Caroline, the suit not only damaged her reputation but was the final blow that separated her from her children. When George and Caroline separated, George took the children with him and denied Caroline access to them. At that time in the eyes of the law, a married woman had no rights outside of her husband. She could not own property, and she could not see her children without the consent of her husband.

Without legal recourse, Caroline turned to public opinion. She was not the only woman of her day to find herself in this position, but eventually she became the spokesperson for all of those who did. She wrote a pamphlet in 1837 titled The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of Her Children as Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father. In that pamphlet she laid out the case of her situation. It was the first time in English legal history that a woman had openly challenged the law that so discriminated against them.

This was the beginning of a long, bruising, and frustrating political fight that took its toll on Caroline’s already tattered reputation. Still, she persisted, and in 1839 the Custody of Children Act was passed by Parliament. It gave custody of children under seven years old to the mother and established the right of the non-custodial parent to have access to the child. The legislation, though very limited in scope, was the first to undermine the patriarchal structure that gave husbands absolute rights over their wives.

The new law, however, did not benefit Caroline immediately. Her husband had taken the children to Scotland where the law did not apply. It took the death of one of her children and more legal negotiations with her husband before she was able to gain any degree of access to her children.

Meanwhile, in order to support herself, Caroline continued to write. She produced a number of political pamphlets arguing for the rights of women, particularly those of wives and mothers. She also wrote poetry that was well received. She authored several novels—often drawing on her own experiences—that were popular and critically acclaimed.

Her own life and character were also thought to provide the models for other authors, particularly Anne Brontë’s work The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her political writings helped to assure the passage of other laws that gave women in England and Wales additional rights. Her supporters in these efforts included none other than Queen Victoria.

Caroline Norton died at the age of 69 in 1877. Her life had not been an easy one, but she was able through her writing to make her struggles count for something. A new biography of her has recently been published by Lady Antonia Fraser. Here is a link to the New York Times review of that book.

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