Book of the week: The Case of the Married Woman

Antonia Fraser’s biography takes on a life that ‘reads like a Victorian sensation novel’

Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton, the subject of Antonia Fraser’s “compulsively readable” biography, had a life which “reads like a Victorian sensation novel”, said Katie Rosseinsky in the London Evening Standard. Born in 1808, she was the granddaughter of the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and was one of a trio of widely admired sisters dubbed the “Three Graces”.

Following a “financially expedient” marriage to Tory MP George Norton in 1827, Caroline moved to London, started a fashionable salon, and forged a lucrative career as a poet and novelist. George, angered at “having his star eclipsed by a woman”, and jealous of her close friendship with Lord Melbourne (a salon regular), began subjecting his wife to “vicious” attacks, once kicking her so hard he caused a miscarriage. Caroline, however, had no legal redress: wives – and their earnings – were their husband’s “property”.

In 1835, Caroline fled the marital home, taking her three sons with her, said Roger Lewis in The Daily Telegraph. However, George reclaimed the boys – they were “bundled into a hackney carriage” – and treated them appallingly. “One son, Willie, died of medical neglect after a riding accident, aged nine; another, Brin, went clinically mad.”

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Norton also launched a legal action against Lord Melbourne (by now prime minister), accusing him of “criminal conversation” – adultery – with Caroline. “Fraser has great fun with the case, which titillated London in June 1836” with its details of Melbourne’s regular visits, and “use of the back entrance”. Though Melbourne was acquitted, the case left a permanent stain on Caroline’s character. This impressively researched and “rousing” book is “classic Antonia Fraser”.

Prevented from ever seeing her children, Caroline poured her energies into reforming the law, said Lara Feigel in The Guardian. She helped initiate the 1839 Custody of Infants Act, granting married women the right to petition for custody of their children. Not that it helped her: George moved their sons to Scotland, out of the Act’s jurisdiction.

Caroline also played a part in shaping the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 (making divorce through the civil courts possible for the first time) and other reforms giving married women some rights over their own property. She wasn’t a likeable character, and nor was she a feminist, said Daisy Goodwin in The Sunday Times: she thought women should be protected by men. But her actions greatly improved the lot of women. “Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th century heroine.”

Weidenfeld 304pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Antonia Fraser book

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