The society beauty, the PM with a taste for S&M… and the scandal that helped set women free: The astonishing story told in a new book by one of Britain’s most distinguished biographers
The jury took only a few seconds to confer, not even bothering to leave the packed Court of Common Pleas in London where they had been sitting all day. Then the foreman said to the judge: ‘My lord, we are agreed in a verdict — it is for the Defendant.’ This was the cue for loud bursts of applause and shouts of ‘Good old Melbourne’.
No less a person than the Prime Minister, the handsome Lord Melbourne, had been dramatically cleared of having ‘criminal intercourse’ with a married woman, the alluring Caroline Norton.
Her aggrieved husband, George, had made the accusation in June 1836. London society buzzed with excitement, predictions, lamentations, exultations or a combination of all these emotions.
Witnesses, mainly servants, had thrilled with salacious mixtures of observation and conjecture about the couple’s illicit meetings — glimpses of their mistress’s tumbled hair after Melbourne’s visits, of disordered clothing and even an uncovered thigh as she lay on a hearth rug. A footman witnessed his hand on Mrs Norton’s shoulder, a maid saw kisses bestowed on her by Melbourne.
The recounting of such intimacies had all caused much jollity but, as the judge had pointed out in his summing-up, the vital legal point was this: though ‘great familiarity’ had been shown on the part of Melbourne and Mrs Norton, adultery had not.
He had told the jury that unless adultery was proved, they must find for Melbourne. As they did.
Caroline Norton, oil on canvas, Sir George Hayter, 1835. Her plight turned Caroline Norton into a passionate campaigner for women’s rights
For Caroline, this was a moment of pure joy. She was separated from her bully of a husband, who, to her great distress, had taken away their three young sons. Now, with the court verdict against her husband, her life could revert to normal, her children back in their mother’s care and she able to live the life she wanted.
That was her hope, but she was to be disappointed. The court case caused no harm to the reputation of the popular Melbourne.
It was Caroline who continued to suffer, losing not only her reputation but her children. Because in the patriarchal society of early 19th-century Britain, married women had no rights. Wives could carry on a separate business — as Caroline, a hugely successful writer of novels, poems and magazine articles, did — but copyright belonged to the husband.
‘Everything that’s yours is mine,’ a husband tells his wife in one of her novels. ‘The clothes you have on, the chain round your neck, the rings you have on, are mine. The law doesn’t admit a married woman has a right to a farthing’s worth of property.’
And the same went for any offspring — all rights over children were vested in their father.
Her plight turned Caroline Norton into a passionate campaigner for women’s rights, making a real contribution to a cause that subsequent generations take for granted: infant custody rights for mothers.
Here was the very first piece of feminist legislation in British history, the work of a remarkable individual whose whole life bore witness to the undeniable fact that a married woman did exist and could not be ignored by the law.
SHE was born Caroline Sheridan, a granddaughter of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, he of The Rivals and School For Scandal. She and her two sisters — born within three years of each other — were such dazzling beauties that they were known in society as the Graces.
Prime Minister, the handsome Lord Melbourne (pictured), had been dramatically cleared of having ‘criminal intercourse’ with a married woman, Caroline Norton
To Charles Dickens, they were ‘sights for the Gods’, while another admirer summed them up as ‘bewitching, wickedly mischievous and innocently wicked’.
Caroline’s thick, lustrous dark hair gave her an Eastern-looking beauty which captivated the aristocratic George Norton, a barrister and Tory MP.
They married in the summer of 1827, when she was just 19 and he 25, and took up residence in a house in Storey’s Gate close to Parliament. There, with all her natural charm, she was soon presiding over a salon for politicians.
Caroline was a fresh and lively presence in political circles; a flirt, certainly, seeing this as part of her role as a hostess.
She dazzled guests with her huge, dark eyes, using them ‘so wickedly’ in deliberate acts of enchantment that the graceful modesty with which she lowered them became famous — or was it notorious?
A portrait of Caroline by William Etty, painted after her Infant Custody Act victory in 1839
She also had a seductive power of speech — ‘a most peculiar, deep, soft contralto voice which was, like her beautiful dark face, set to music’. But the conversation that came forth was sharp, stinging, sardonic and often outrageous.
She prided herself on her full and voluptuous figure — ‘fleshy’ in the language of her time. Exactly how ‘fleshy’ is impossible to say, since in her early married life she was mostly pregnant, giving birth to three sons in five years.
But it was far from a happy marriage. Shortly after their wedding, Norton became enraged with his young wife and attacked her physically. Thereafter, he took to kicking, pushing and shoving her when she displeased him.
He threatened to throw her downstairs when she was pregnant, and a miscarriage was caused by a vicious blow at least once.
Such attacks were not necessarily against the law. A married woman was her husband’s property — as Caroline put it, ‘she does not exist’. The considerable amount of money she earned from her writing was also her husband’s legal property. Norton resented her literary career, but was happy to live off the proceeds.
Meanwhile, an increasingly regular caller at the Norton home was Lord Melbourne — a widower in his early 50s, nearly 30 years older than Caroline, he was still an attractive man.
He had a preference for strong women and was also bent on avoiding boredom.
A gentle rallying, teasing friendship began. Caroline found gratification in the sheer importance of her admirer’s position as Prime Minister, and it quickly became known that her presence put the great man in a good humour, resulting in an increase in her social prestige.
The warmth of her relationship with Melbourne was soon a matter of general comment. One acquaintance who dined with them commented that ‘they appeared better friends than I should have liked if I had been Mr Norton’.
As for Norton, the subordinate role in which he found himself riled him. He was haunted by the impression that Caroline did not think he was good enough for her and her friends. They began spending more and more time apart.
From her correspondence, it seems clear that if Caroline was not in love with Melbourne at this point, he was at the least the focus of her sentimental feelings.
Which did not necessarily mean they were lovers. Caroline had many admirers; she flirted with many people, that was her nature. Nevertheless, her letters to him grew ever more tender and the frequency of his visits, however innocuous, could not fail to be remarked upon by the servants.
Just before Easter 1836, things with her husband came to a head when Caroline made arrangements to stay with her brother in the country. Norton was specifically not invited and they quarrelled.
He refused to let her take the children, and eventually sent them to live with his sister in Scotland, as far from Caroline as possible.
She wrote an appalled letter to Melbourne: ‘He has taken all my children from me! Here is a man, who was mad to marry me at 18, who turns me out of his house nine years afterwards and inflicts vengeance as bitterly as he can’.
Wild threats began to be exchanged on both sides. It was the question of the children which drove Caroline to madness — or was it the reasonable response of a devoted mother?
On the other hand, it was the question of adultery which seemed to be driving her estranged husband to equal madness.
Earlier in the year, Norton had asked his wife to use her influence with Melbourne to secure him a paid position as a magistrate. Now he proposed to sue that same man for adultery and ask for the vast sum of £10,000 — just under £900,000 in modern values — in damages.
Caroline was not a co-defendant in the action and since she had no legal existence outside marriage, she was not represented in court, though her words and deeds would be widely cited. She wrote bitterly to her writer friend Mary Shelley: ‘Well, a woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men — or she would be allowed a defence, a counsel, in such an hour.’
Unfortunately, there was no comfort to be got from Melbourne himself, who — to protect himself politically — stood back from supporting her.
In a letter she accused him of ‘shrinking from me and my burdensome distress’.
His main reaction seems to have been a wish to be involved as little as possible. To a friend, he made a somewhat ungallant complaint: ‘The fact is He [Norton] is a stupid Brute and She [Caroline] had not temper nor dissimulation enough to manage him.’ The tone of her letters to Melbourne became sombre. In one, she expressed ‘my strong impression that you have ceased to feel the affection for me which you did’.
Another ended: ‘I am to be a childless mother & a disgraced wife for my supposed power to charm strangers, yet the man I have been ‘charming’ since I was 22 [the age she met Melbourne]’.
Then she breaks off. ‘Well! I beg pardon. All I say is, worse women have been better stood by.’
As for the charge of adultery, though in her letters she admitted that ‘no one ever loved another better than I have loved you’, that leaves unclear whether romantic passion was ever physically consummated, and if so, to what degree.
Certainly, in their personal correspondence, neither Caroline nor Melbourne ever admitted to having had the raging affair of which they were accused.
In theory, it is possible they did and simply lied about it. But there are cumulative indications which point in a different direction, not least that for so much of the time she knew Melbourne she was pregnant. This was proof of continuing conjugal relations with Norton, who never questioned the boys’ paternity at the time.
Another factor points away from full consummation. Melbourne had an acknowledged taste for flagellation, and there is no suggestion he ever indulged in this taste with Caroline — who, as the wife of an abusive husband, was unlikely to have welcomed it.
In an age without reliable birth control, dalliance of a lighter sort was popular. It seems most likely Melbourne and Caroline indulged in intimate caresses, stopping short of the ultimate act. So she was convinced she had not committed adultery. And so the Court of Common Pleas had pronounced. She and Melbourne were not guilty of ‘criminal intercourse’.
But while he was cheered in the House of Commons, popular opinion took a different view of Caroline, with The Times characterising her as vain and her conduct imprudent, indiscreet and undignified, ‘the very last we would hold out to an English wife’.
Caroline and Norton were expected to continue as before: an unhappily married couple with three sons, amid bouts of physical violence. But she refused to accept her fate.
Innocent or not, the law was on the side of the husband, not the wife. Knowing her sons might grow up without ever seeing her, she campaigned to change the law.
First, she produced a pamphlet of Observations On The Natural Claim Of The Mother To The Custody Of Her Infant Children As Affected By The Common Law Right Of The Father.
Then, with her help, one of her MP friends, lawyer Thomas Talfourd, introduced in the House of Commons the first feminist legislation ever to be brought before it — the Infant Custody Bill.
In cases where the parents were living apart, it sought to empower judges to make orders relating to the custody of children under the age of seven.
Opponents pitched into Talfourd’s suggested measures by attacking the principle of a mother’s absolute right to access.
It was declared ‘immoral and anti-Christian’ for encouraging women to feel the freedom to separate rather than seek reconciliation with their husbands.
It was also argued that allowing women this maternal right would encourage adultery — though, true to the times, it was the adultery of the mother that was contemplated with eloquent horror rather than the adultery of the father. Talfourd’s bill was passed in the House of Commons by 91 votes to 18, but then went to the Lords.
There, it was opposed by a former Lord Chancellor on the grounds of being ‘repugnant to nature’. By 11 votes to nine, an exceptionally small House of Lords threw it out, demolishing the hopes of women.
Meanwhile, Caroline wrote to her husband that after 14 months’ separation: ‘I am hungry for the children.’ He allowed her to see them for daily visits in London, but then sent them back to Scotland, and there was nothing she could do.
But slowly the atmosphere was changing. In April 1839, Talfourd returned to Parliament with his bill and went further than before by asking for a mother to have not mere access to her infant child, but actual custody. This time the Lords allowed it to proceed, and in August that year, the young Queen Victoria gave it the Royal Assent.
A woman was now able to petition the court for custody of her own children up to the age of seven, and for access to other, older children. The Court of Chancery could transfer legal custody to the mother if she was judged to be best suited to the care of the child.
For the first time in English history, a mother had some legal rights over her own children. The father’s were no longer absolute. Not that this made much difference to Caroline.
George Norton persistently used his trump card — access to the boys — to impose his own terms.
Eventually, though, he would extend no further opposition to her seeing them, and in 1842 she spent her first Christmas with them for seven years (though sadly without Willie, the youngest, who had tragically died from blood poisoning after falling from a pony).
Over the years, there was much criticism directed at Caroline because of her seemingly scandalous behaviour.
She also came under attack that her campaigning was totally selfish, based entirely on self-interest, not the interests of women in general.
She didn’t care. To her, it was more important that the law should be altered than that she should be approved. ‘Many a woman may live to thank Heaven that I had the courage and energy to attempt the task,’ she wrote.
Some women, including her own sisters, disapproved, believing she sought the oxygen of publicity. But she was determined to make public her anger.
She used all her political contacts, and, above all, her agile pen, to tread boldly forward in protest. The wrong done to her was done towards all women.
It was appropriate, then, that when Victorian artist Daniel Maclise painted her portrait he chose to picture Caroline as Justice — a dominating female holding a pair of scales, with those huge dark eyes, the ones she had used to such good effect, cast ever upwards.
- Adapted from The Case Of The Married Woman by Antonia Fraser, published by W&N on May 6, £25. © Antonia Fraser 2021
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