Saturday, 6 December 2014

Caroline Norton and the Role of Women

Caroline Norton, a woman who changed the lives of all women today. A hero and inspiration, who refused to be seen as a victim, but rather a victor. Through the endless torture and the incessant campaigning, she changed the law, ultimately changing the lives of divorced and single women today. It may seem strange that throughout the abuse Norton endured, she did not immediately divorce her husband. However, she did not have a choice. Unlike today, women in the Victorian era were unable to divorce their husbands, and to separate meant losing everything (literally!). Until the late 19th century, a wife was considered a possession of her husbands, rather than an individual human being. If a woman decided she no longer wanted to be with her husband, such as the case of Caroline Norton, she lost everything. Norton's husband George Chapple Norton took everything, from her jewellery, her earnings, to their children. Despite losing everything, including a miscarried child, Norton did not simply give up; the law did not stop her from obtaining what she wanted most, her children and her independence from her husband.
Figure 1. A portrait of Caroline Norton

Martha Vicinus in A widening Sphere states:

The life of Caroline Norton vividly illustrated the hardships that the common law imposed upon the married women with respect to property and other matters as well. A celebrated society beauty in her younger days and a popular hostess in high Whig circles, the Honorable Mrs. Norton had separated from her uncongenial husband in 1836, but under the law she could not obtain a divorce. Much of the property that came to her from her parents passed, under the operation of the common law, into the possession of her husband, who refused to pay her an adequate allowance after their separation. Forced to make her own way in the world, she turned to writing and won considerable acclaim for her poetry, novels, and stories. But under the common law her earnings belonged to her husband, who periodically tried to gain possession of them.

As well as depriving Norton of her property, her earnings and her children, Mr. Norton also accused his wife of having an affair with then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. As a woman, Norton was unable to attend court in her own defence, leading to public humiliation. This case meant Norton lost her children, under the common law, which meant the father was left with full custody and the mother none. Norton was left with nothing. It would seem the hardest loss of all was her children; she reached a point in which she began stalking her children, just to feel their presence for a short while. In spite of losing all, she was determined to turn her life around, and fight for what rightfully belonged to her.  

Figure 2. Caroline Norton's 'A Message of Motherhood'
Having been treated unfairly throughout her marriage, humiliated by the public for being a part of one of the most scandalous cases of adultery in the Victorian era, Caroline Norton began her journey to change the law. She began writing letters to various newspaper and members of parliament in order to send across her message. Her first of many polemical pamphlets, published in 1837 Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her children as affected by the common law Right of the Father. Following from this, in the next year, Separation of Mother and child by the Laws of Custody of Infants considered was published. Norton began describing her unjust treatment throughout her separation, her lack of involvement and therefore the loss of her children.

 In 1839, her third pamphlet A Plain letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody bill was written and contributed to all members of parliament. Her fourth pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1854 campaigned for the rights of property in divorce. Using Charles Dickens as inspiration, Mrs. Norton used words from Bleak House ‘It won’t do to have TRUTH and JUSTICE on our side; we must have LAW and LAWYERS.’

In 1855, Norton published her final and most influential pamphlet A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage & Divorce Bill, concerning the status of women in the English Law. In this pamphlet, she described a few of the appalling difficulties women faced during this era.

Figure 3. A detailed portrait of Caroline Norton (centre) and her sisters

‘An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit; she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter; the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid.’

·      Losing her children seemed to be the hardest loss of all; Norton spent many years grieving for her children, and was determined to make a change. In August 1839, the Custody of Infants Act was passed. This act gave married mothers that were not guilty of infidelity, the right of custody of their children under seven years of age. They were also given access to children under the age of sixteen.

‘If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband, a vinculo, however profligate he may be.’

·      Divorce for women during the Victorian era was a truly unpleasant position. Mistreatment of women was not accounted for, such as the situation of infidelity, in which only women were punished. As well as women, the poor were highly disadvantaged by divorce, which became very expensive. In 1857, The Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, in which divorce became governed by civil courts rather than ecclesiastical courts, making it less obscure. Divorce also became more affordable, as before it was restricted to the wealthy, demanding a complex annulment process or a private bill, both extremely costly. A model of marriage was created, meaning if women were being treated unfairly, it would be made aware.

 ‘A married woman in England has no legal existence; her being is absorbed in that of her husband… An English wife has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases, even though they be the gifts of relatives or friends.’

·      A married woman in England was labelled a legal non-person. After marriage, her existence was passed onto her husband, as well as all her belongings. Norton was not satisfied with this, and in 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act was passed. This act allowed women to be legal owners of their earnings, and could legally inherit property. Before this act, everything that women earned or inherited was passed onto their husbands, denying women their right to their belongings.

Caroline Norton is now recognised as a hero to all women. Without Caroline Norton, women would not exist by law, and would not truly own anything for themselves. Through the campaigning and fighting, Norton managed to pass three laws, and change the way women live today.

Works cited:



Vicinus, Martha. A widening sphere – changing roles of Victorian Women. Indiana University Press: 1977. Print.

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