If Caroline Sheridan would have remained single and stayed Miss Sheridan, most likely her life still would have been notable. Sheridan, who was born in 1808, was not only, by all accounts, an incredibly beautiful woman, but she was a talented poet and novelist and was active in the London literary scene for the majority of her life. Major outlets, such as The Athenaeum and The Times, praised her work. She was influenced by Bryon, was friendly with Mary Shelley, and garnered the attention of Charles Dickens.
But, of course, like most women in the 19th century, Sheridan did not stay single. She married and became Mrs. Norton. And while very few, in 2013, may read her novels or poems, many people’s lives are still shaped by the choices she made, particularly her decision to fight for legislation that would give divorced women the right to see their children and allow women to participate in court proceedings, enter contracts, and own property.
Diane Atkinson details all these things and more in The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Victorian England’s ‘Scandal of the Century’ and the Fallen Socialite who Changed Women’s Lives Forever, and she begins with these criminal conversations—tricky Victorian code for adultery. In what seemed to be the trial of the century, George Norton, husband to Caroline, accused Caroline and Lord Melbourne, the then Prime Minister, of criminal conversation. The proceedings that followed matched any 20th or 21st century trial in terms of public interest. Caroline’s contemporaries watched and read about her ordeal the way many follow major murder cases today, and the trial was quickly fictionalized in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.
Even before the alleged criminal conversation, Caroline and Norton did not have a good marriage. They quarreled frequently, and Norton’s attempt to “teach her not to brave him” made Caroline tease and mimic him. In the end “it was not a contest of equals: he was not up to her quick wit and repartee and he knew it.” Most likely equally frustrating to Norton was while his career floundered (in fact Caroline had to use her influence to help Norton obtain a position), Caroline’s reputation as a writer continued to grow and often her writing supported their family.
Considering Norton’s behavior early in their marriage—“Caroline was used to his abuse and she had been anxious to forget about the time he had tried to push her down the stairs a month before their third child was born”—his behavior during and after the trial shouldn’t be that surprising. In addition to taking out advertisements in the papers to tell the world about their private business and telling Caroline that he had sold her dresses and other personal belongings, Norton kept their children from her.
Perhaps even worse, Norton would tell Caroline that if she would only do this one thing or that one thing, he would let her see the children. Norton always reneged. And this set Caroline on her battle to change the laws, which at the time read something like:
“No matter how dangerous the circumstances which drove a wife to leave her husband and children or take temporary refuge, she had no right to be allowed to see her children again until they were twenty-one. Like her, the children were her husband’s chattels and his to dispose of as he wished until they reached the age of majority.”
Caroline worked to change these laws, not just for herself but for many other women.
Atkinson provides a comprehensive look at Caroline’s life, taking much information from Caroline’s personal correspondence. The tone is lively, and while not particularly objective, Atkinson doesn’t sugarcoat Caroline’s character; instead, Atkinson provides an honest look at a very interesting woman. She notes that Caroline was a flirt, and this could make her unpopular: “She also flirted with every man in her circle, unmarried or married. This made her plenty of female enemies.
“Not everyone enjoyed her skittishness, especially not mothers looking to marry off their daughters.” Atkinson also reveals some of Caroline’s rash behavior and describes the tone of one of her letters to her brother as “bitchier”. Caroline accomplished important things—and often did so in not the best of health—but Atkinson paints her candidly.
Overall, Atkinson tells a fascinating (and important) story, but it’s easy to get a little mired in the details—this is not a quick read. Still, Atkinson ends the book with two important thoughts. First: “Today Caroline Norton’s name and work are not widely known, but every time a mother is granted custody of her children, or is successful in her application for financial support, Caroline’s struggle with her dreadful husband and her eventual success should be saluted.”
Second, Atkinson seems to acknowledge that as difficult as it is to charge the law it is even more difficult to change humans. The last line of the book: “George Norton died in 1875, but there have been many George Nortons since, and this kind of behavior persists.”