THE EXAMPLE OF THE MARRIED WOMAN: Caroline Norton and her Struggle for Women’s Justice, by Antonia Fraser
Many modern women may well remember a time when they could not open a bank account or sign a mortgage without a signature from their husband or father. Antonia Fraser will definitely be in her 90th year. What happily none of us can remember is the period when married women had no legal status. When a woman married, her legal identity was incorporated into her husband’s. A married woman could not sign a contract, could not make a will. She had no debts – which sounds great, until she realizes she can’t owe it, because all her money, even what she earned, belonged to her husband, as did all her property. Just like their children.
That’s changed in part because of Caroline Norton’s heroic campaign and tragic story, as recounted in Fraser’s new book. He was the grandson of the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the author of the “Scandal School” she. Born in 1808, 30 years before Queen Victoria took the throne, she and her two equally beautiful sisters made a stir when they made their debut. While her sisters married title-bearing men, Caroline, as a younger son, married George Norton, who hoped for a title of her own—but would also be jealous, violent, petty, and constantly evil.
Their early married life was relatively smooth. The couple had three children even as their home became a political parlor with the lovely Miss Norton at its centre. Indeed, as she shone and her husband took more and more of the backseat, she began to feel perhaps too centered. He may have been happy that his charming wife had used her influence over the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to win George a plum money, but at home he was less happy that he had such an influence. Similarly, while George was happy to spend the money Caroline earned as a writer of fashionable novels and poetry, he resented that others were more interested in the high society writer than the sullen, laconic judge.
Since the woman is the legal property of her husband and adultery reduces the value of that property, a lawsuit can be filed against his wife’s lover for financial compensation.
In 1836, after another violence by her husband, Caroline went to stay with her family. George moved the children (the youngest is not yet 3 years old) to his sister’s house, where he forcibly detained them and refused to let Caroline enter. He also claimed his earnings as a writer. All this was his legal right back then.