*Trigger warning* Domestic Violence
Caroline Norton, came from a privileged and politically connected family, was a society beauty and was a celebrated writer of poetry.
After the death of her father in South Africa, her family became penniless and she was pressurised into a marriage to support her family. In 1827 she married George Norton who was the Tory MP for Guildford, but Caroline was a Whig who wanted social reform and was interested in improving the lives of factory workers. The pair were political opposites and did not get on with each other.
George became an abusive husband who beat Caroline for a number of years and often had to be restrained when he became violent or drunkenly attacked her. One beating was so traumatic that she miscarried a pregnancy. However, during her marriage, Caroline had three children, Fletcher (1829-1859), Brinsley (1831-1877) and William (1833-1842) who she loved.
After suffering years of abuse she left her husband. She allegedly had an affair with the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, and George Norton sued him for ‘criminal conversation’ which at the time meant adultery. George lost the trial but Caroline became scandalous. George, within his legal rights, emotionally manipulated Caroline by denying her the right to see her sons, then promising that she could see her them, then changing his mind over and over again. He also took all of the profit from her writing which left her bankrupt and reliant on family and friends.
Caroline poured anger at her victimisation into attempting to change the law and win back her children. She learnt about the English legal system, wrote campaign materials and canvassed for the support of her political friends. She expressed her feelings in poetry and her political works included titles such as ‘Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered’ (1837) and ‘English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century’ (1854). She also wrote a 30,000 word letter to Queen Victoria about her concerns around the legal rights or wives and mothers. Ironically, all of proceeds from these works went to her husband.
These campaigning efforts over a number of years led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1839), the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) and the Married Women’s Property Act (1870). These laws were some of the first laws to recognise women as separate to their husbands at a time when they had no legal existence, and were the first laws to allow women rights to child custody. Despite these achievements, when Caroline was legally allowed the right to see her children, George took them to Scotland where the laws did not apply.
Outside of her campaigning, Caroline did not identify with the women’s suffrage movement to gain the vote, which she called radical, but her efforts were intrinsically feminist and she advanced women’s rights in the Victorian period across all classes. Her laws paved the way for the child custody laws which protect women and children today.
Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd, who is a History & Gender Studies graduate,
Find out more…
You can listen to a free audio book of Caroline Norton’s poetry collection I Do Not Love Thee here.
There is a book all about Caroline’s life called A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton, you can get it here.
You can read & listen to many of Caroline Norton’s poems here.
*If you or anyone you know is the victim of domestic violence you can call the free national helpline on 0808 2000 247.*