Until the mid 1800s, married women in England had no legal rights. By law a husband could prevent his wife from seeing their children. He also had control over all her income, including any earnings she might make. Caroline Norton (1808-1877), who was married to an abusive man and who had been barred from seeing her three sons after they divorced, successfully challenged these laws.
Caroline was the granddaughter of a playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the daughter of novelist Caroline Henrietta Sheridan. Caroline’s father died when she was eight years old, which left the family in financial straits. When Caroline had turned 16, George Norton, a Tory member of parliament for Guildford, spotted her and asked for her hand in marriage. But she was too young to marry. Though a renowned beauty, Caroline had no dowry. Still, she hesitated to marry George Norton, but her mother eventually supported the match and thus she wed him at 19.
George Norton turned out to be a violent and unfaithful husband. He beat Caroline repeatedly, even in her third trimester of pregnancy. The marriage, though a failure, lasted long enough for Caroline to bear three sons. There were repeated estrangements and reunions, but the marriage finally ended in 1836. Caroline’s travails had just begun. Her reputation was in tatters as a divorced woman, and she was not allowed to see her sons. She was to write:
What I suffered on my children’s account, none will ever know or measure. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness,” and God knew mine! The days and nights of tears and anguish, that grew into the struggle of years–it is even now a pain to me to look back upon; even now, the hot agony of resentment and grief rises in my mind, when I think of the needless tyranny I endured in this respect. Mr Norton held my children as hostages; he felt that while he had them, he still had a power over me that nothing could control. Baffled in the matter of the trial and damages, he still had the power to do more than punish–to torture–the wife who had been so anxious to part from him – Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the 19th Century
Caroline’s story is more convoluted and complicated than presented here, and well worth reading. Suffice it to say that Caroline challenged the law that favored men over women, and her writing was instrumental in having The Child Custody Act of 1839 passed. Sadly for Caroline, her husband still denied her access to her children. Her youngest boy fell from a horse and died, and only after this tragedy were her two other boys allowed to live with her.
His cruel carelessness was afterwards proved, on a most miserable occasion. My youngest child, then a boy of eight years 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 neighbor, and died there of lock jaw, consequent on the accident. Mr Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week,–indeed to be at death’s door,–before he sent to inform me. Sir Fitzroy and Lady Kelly were staying with Mr Norton in the country. 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 my child, a corpse already coffined.
Mr Norton asked my forgiveness then, as he had asked it often before; he sent his elder child to plead for him,–for well he knew what my children were to me; he humbled himself, and grieved for an hour, till he changed into pity the horror and repugnance I had expressed at the idea of seeing him;–and then he buried our child, and forgot both his sorrow and his penitence.
When George Norton caught wind that Caroline had been left a small legacy by her friend, Lord Melbourne and a small sum that her mother had left her, he stopped support payments for her and the children. Caroline fought him in court but lost. She campaigned to have the laws changed, and her victory resulted in the Matrimonial Act of 1857. Caroline remarried just months before her death in 1877, but not before two more crucial laws were passed that protected the rights of women and children, the Infant Custody Acts of 1873 (and 1886) and The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 (and 1882).
More on the topic:
- Lady Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton
- Caroline Norton and the Victorian Divorce Laws
- Caroline Norton
- The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Caroline Norton
- A Celebration of Women Writers: Caroline Norton