Thursday, May 26, 2022
New Book The Case of Caroline Norton and the History of Married Women's Loss of Child Custody Rights
***[This is] the tragic story, of Caroline Norton, as conveyed in Fraser’s new book.... Born in 1808, 30 years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, she and her two equally beautiful sisters made a stir when they debuted in society. Her sisters married titled men, while Caroline married George Norton, who, while a younger son, had hopes of a title of his own — but would also turn out to be jealous, violent, petty and unremittingly vicious.***
In 1836, after yet another episode of her husband’s violence, Caroline went to stay with her parents. George moved their children (the youngest not yet 3) to his sister’s house, where he forcibly detained them, refusing Caroline access. He also claimed her earnings as a writer. All this was, at the time, his legal right.
And so, driven by the loss of her children, Caroline did that most unladylike of things: She fought. She fought George in the court of public opinion, writing pamphlets and essays and articles. She fought him in the courts. And he fought back. He sued Lord Melbourne, his patron, for “criminal conversation” with his wife.
Crim. con., as it was known, was not quite the same thing as suing for adultery. It was, rather, a property suit: Since a wife was the legal property of her husband, and adultery reduced the value of that property, the wife’s lover could be sued for financial compensation. George demanded 10,000 pounds from Melbourne, millions in today’s money.
While George did in fact want money, he wanted revenge much more, and by naming Melbourne he focused public attention squarely on his wife. In court, as in life, George Norton did not shine, and, unable to actually prove adultery, he lost the case. But the damage was done: Melbourne, tainted by the scandal, abandoned Caroline Norton, as did her friends.
However, she did not give up. Norton continued to campaign tirelessly for access to her children, and the publicity she brought to the legal situation forced politicians to confront the law. In 1839, the Custody of Infants Act was passed, allowing judges to give custody of children under 7 to the mother.