Thursday, 14 November 2013

Victorian Marriage: Divorce in Victorian Era

Before 1857, Victorian England was an unjust place for a married woman. A man could take all of the earnings and inheritance from his wife. Divorce cases were managed by the Church of England which made divorce a formidable difficulty, unless the lady was extremely wealthy. Social and political laws dictated women’s freedom to take independent decisions about marriage and employment.

The dress code was pivotal to take a woman’s freedom away and often put emphasises on Men’s authority and control. Long and heavy dresses which scraped the floor meant that these ‘married’ women would struggle to move. Behind all the glamour, these dresses embodied the imprisoned bodies under the unjust society of Victorian England, especially after a woman was married. 

Taken from Helena Wojtczak’s, ‘A Brief Overview’

Taken from Helena Wojtczak’s, ‘A Brief Overview’

Melbourne Scandal 
The Melbourne scandal was a crucial biting point for divorce laws to be changed and advanced in Victorian England, and on a social level, was a greater shock for Victorians. The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, had an affair with Caroline Norton who was at the same time married to George Chapple Norton, Melbourne’s close friend. Instead of a basic sexual desire, the affair was to do with the inescapable love they felt when “they were drawn irresistibly to each other” (Mail online).

Caroline Norton, altogether with her demeanour shows the boldness and passion she has towards ‘equitable’ rights in civil laws. She is obviously in the process of writing which brings out her intellectual bravery as well as educational sustenance, and the attachment of her left hand to her lower jaw fumes a sexual reflection. 
Caroline Norton By Sir George Hayter in 1832

With her divorce, Caroline became furious and turned her affair with Melbourne into an advantage. George Norton had found out their affair and consequently took away their children from Caroline, not be seen by her again. Through law, George Norton confiscated all of Caroline’s earnings that she had made as a writer. As a Prime Minister, Melbourne was blackmailed by Caroline and forced to support her divorce case which lead to paving changes in divorce laws.               
Taken from 'MailOnline'

Changes in divorce laws
The Victorian era became a space of reform, for example the ‘Custody of Infants Act 1839’, ‘Matrimonial Causes Act 1857’, and finally the ‘Married Women’s Property Act 1870’ voiced women. The fuming influence on these acts was no one other than Caroline Norton, an English feminist, social reformer, and an author of the early and mid-nineteenth century. Her troublesome marriage, ending in divorce, was destined to be a pivotal case for the Parliament’s decisions.

Caroline Norton later submitted to the court a thorough account of her own marriage and the suffering she experienced because of the existing laws. Along with Lord Melbourne’s support in court, Caroline became a phenomenon for women.

The ‘Married Women’s Property Act 1870’
Out of these three acts, I believe that the ‘Married Women’s Property Act 1870’ was the ground-breaking reform, allowing divorced women to keep their own earnings was surely something highly civil. Funny enough the act took place in 1870, years after Caroline’s submission and the ‘Custody of Infants Act 1839’ and ‘Matrimonial Causes Act 1857’ passed court, though Caroline was still fortunate to see the Property Act reform – she died in 1877. Perhaps women today should visit Caroline Norton’s cemetery to show their gratitude...

The ‘Matrimonial Causes Act 1857’
The ‘Matrimonial Causes Act 1857’ was unavoidably a revolutionary change, leaving the Church of England out of divorce cases and making it the duty of barristers. Though a woman desiring to divorce would still need a fair amount of wealth, bearing in mind that before 1857, “ecclesiastical courts had the sole jurisdiction over marital disputes”, her application had a higher chance of acceptance in the new style courts that evaluated the circumstance and reasons for divorce.
Divorce Acts before and after the reform in 1857

The ‘Custody of Children Act 1839’

The ‘Custody of Children Act 1839’ meant that divorced women were legally in position to take their child’s custody until the age of seven. Caroline Norton had to address this act specifically and she wrote a letter to the Lord Chancellor of the time. Though seven years is minor, Caroline ‘popped the cherry’ and left her foot marks in history.  

Robert Browning

We see in many of his poems that Browning underlines how men in society saw women in the Victorian era as a sexual object, and very much infers that their purpose is to please men, which in ‘The Pretty Women’ he conveys effectively. Women are reflected as easy to obtain because they like men for “a word’s sake or a sword’s sake” (10-11). The ‘word’ in the example suggests that men have the only ‘word’ in the marriage, however, this was not the case for Caroline Norton- she took the final say. The second word, ‘sword’, infers that men are masculine and physically stronger. ‘Sword’ also means that men fought over women against others. Women are something private for the man, inside the house they serve their man; however, the man’s duty is to protect her outside the house. This was a way of life for women that lived in the Victorian era, or perhaps an enforced one.

Another violent example is when the narrator states that we, referring to men, “paid you, brayed you in a mortar” (23). Though a very overwhelming statement, it is unedited facts about how women where perceived in Victorian England. Browning shows us that Victorian women were something purchasable and their opinion is unaccounted and unworthy. The poem unfolds that women were violated by being ‘brayed’.  The imagery of a mortar is violent as women are compared to something crushable or breakable. A mortar is used to break food down to make it consumable, suggesting that women were crushed and beaten, as Caroline Norton was by her husband, for men to control and dictate them. These are the tragic and unheard facts about where women stood in society and their role in marriage.

Image of a Mortar

I think Caroline Norton is one to admire and respect, she made life worthwhile for women in the Victorian era and partially today’s England.

Work cited

  • ·         Helena Wojtczak. (2012). WOMEN'S STATUS IN MID 19TH-CENTURY ENGLAND A BRIEF OVERVIEW. Available: Last accessed 14/11/2013.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog entry. I like how you linked the treatment of women to the mortar because it emphasized their mistreatment and gave a clearer picture of their plight in the nineteenth century. The information you provided on Caroline Norton was rather interesting, as it shows that feminism was a strong feeling within that period, and although women were not given as much right as men as compared to men, there were still strong women in society, who chose to rise against this. Also, the revelation of adultery in the 19th century removes the rose tinted depiction of this period.

  2. Reading through this reminded me of Heathcliff's treatment of Isabella, he chooses to marry her out of revenge and only desires to take way the Linton's property. It is also interesting to think that an actual divorce between Heathcliff and Isabella never takes place, instead she runs away. Within both Catherine's and Isabella's marriages, they never seem to properly escape instead they die unsatisfied which certainly shows women didn't have much freedom to change their fate. Very interesting to learn about Caroline Norton, I had never knew anything about her till your blog entry.