The Power of a Pen in the Hand of an Angry Woman: The Trials of Caroline Norton

maclise the spirit of justice

Daniel Maclise, The Spirit of Justice (1847-9). Fresco. Caroline Norton was the model for Justice (center)

In an age in which English marriage law considered women not just less than equal, but absolutely nonexistent, Caroline Norton emerged as an unlikely hero. She is sometimes called an early feminist, but that is inaccurate. Pressured into marriage to a virtual stranger by her family’s financial problems, abused both physically and emotionally by her husband, object of general pity, falsely accused of adultery, separated from her children, and crippled financially by her manipulative husband, she fought back.

Caroline didn’t believe in woman’s equality with man, as did Wollstonecraft for example, and certainly never argued for it. What she did believe in was rule by law, laws that could be changed, and the obligation of the law to protect those dependent on others. She may have been without protection, money, or power, but she had two formidable weapons: she had influential friends and she could write.

Caroline’s early life is generally described one of poverty, and that is somewhat true. Her grandfather, the playwright Richard Sheridan, died in poverty, but in an age that knew true poverty, Caroline didn’t go hungry or lack shelter. However, her mother, who had been left with seven children to raise on a modest pension when her husband died suddenly, endured enormous financial insecurity and worried particularly for her three dowerless daughters throughout Caroline’s childhood. Still, her childhood cannot be called bleak. The Sheridans were an intellectually vibrant family with radical political leanings and a wide circle of friends. Her mother wrote novels, and Caroline was particularly fond of her uncle, Charles Sheridan, a noted if not particularly brilliant poet. She began writing and expressing herself at a very young age.

Once Caroline’s older sister made a successful marriage, Caroline didn’t question that it was her turn to do so, particularly because their youngest sister had begun to attract a number of suitors, and giving the family hope she might make a brilliant match. (So she did. Georgiana Sheridan became the Duchess of Somerset.) Caroline may not have wanted to stand in the way, may have desired to please her mother, or might simply have believed she would get no other offers. There had been none during her only London season. Whatever the reason, she agreed to marry Edward Norton, a man she had met only once three years before when she was sixteen. He had approached her mother at that time and been put off, apparently in hopes Caroline could do better. This time both mother and daughter agreed.

CarolineNortonbyGeorgeHayter1832

Portrait by Sir George Hayter, 1832

No one knows why Edward wanted Caroline, but his dissatisfaction with her surfaced early. The Sheridans were Whigs, if not outright radical, in their politics. Norton, a Member of Parliament and a staunch Tory, loathed much of what Caroline believed. Raised to argue her position, she must have been devastated when he kicked her for expressing views with which he disagreed. That kick early in the marriage was the first of extensive physical abuse. Various accounts describe Norton as “dull-witted” and indolent, the sort to be threatened by her wit, verbal dexterity, and vivaciousness. He wasn’t above using her social skills for political gain, however. He even encouraged her friendship with Lord Melbourne.

Money also caused trouble. Norton probably presented his financial status to Caroline’s mother otherwise, but he was in fact living on a barrister’s salary when he married. Though Lord Grantly’s heir, he received no allowance from the estate. He lost his seat in Parliament three years after they married. Extremely conscious of status, he refused work he considered beneath him, did little to help their situation, and pressured Caroline to convince her influential friends to get him an appointment, one he thought worthy of his rank. Eventually Melbourne gave him an appointment as a magistrate. Caroline, for her part, began to publish her writings, and he happily took the income from that.

The birth of three children and her writing gave Caroline some joy. She was a devoted mother. The violence, however, never let up. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, he beat her so badly she miscarried. After such episodes Caroline would go to her family for refuge but always went back. Arguing and violence escalated until one day, when Caroline was out, Edward sent their three children to a cousin and ordered the servants to lock her out of the house. He had, in essence, thrown her out.

Norton then brought suit against Melbourne for “Criminal Conversation,” or adultery, a first step in obtaining a divorce. He also hoped to milk money out of Melbourne. He lost. The jury didn’t even have to leave the courtroom; he was laughed out of court. The case had several results. Melbourne’s reputation and political position were upheld. Caroline was labeled a “scandalous woman” for the rest of her life. There could and would be no divorce. Only a man could sue for divorce, and she was a faithful wife. They were stuck with each other.

Worst of all he kept the children from her. Her only recourse was to attack the law that let him do it. Caroline rallied her friends and contacts. She finally convinced a member of parliament to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the Court of Chancery for custody of children less than seven years of age. She continued to write, but now she wrote pamphlets brilliantly arguing for the rights of women to their children. It took two years, but in 1839 parliament passed The Infant Custody Act enabling women sue for custody of children under seven as long as they were not adulteresses. The act made married women visible in the law for the first time. Edward countered by moving her children to Scotland where the law didn’t apply. Three years later one of her sons died there before she was able to get to him.

Edward also denied her a home and refused to support her. Another woman might have been crushed under all that, but Caroline Norton was made of sterner stuff. She continued to write. She could support herself with her published works. Edward quickly claimed her income as his right.

Yes, he could do that.

She proceeded to send her bills to him, bills he was obligated to pay. Years of conflict followed eventually culminating in another court case in 1853. This time Edward won on a technicality because the particular creditor in question had presented his bill before Norton withdrew support.

CarolineNortonbyFrank_Stone

Detail from a painting by Frank Stone, 1845

Again Caroline fought back with her pen. Since her husband was entitled to all her income from writing, she dedicated that writing to one topic, marriage and property laws that enabled him to profit from her labor. She never argued for the equality of women. She focused entirely on the non-existence of women in marriage law.

A movement to change the laws was already underway and a number of women including Barbara Leigh Smith, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett and Dorothea Beale, were lobbying for change. Caroline threw herself—and her pen—into the fray. NON-EXISTENT became a kind of rallying cry for her. Among other things, she wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria about the position of women in regard to divorce. When the Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857 it had 68 clauses, four of which came from Caroline’s pamphlets. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward. It created a Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes removing divorce from both civil and ecclesiastical courts, and provided women recognition in law.

In later years Caroline continued to write. Her poetry and novels enjoyed some success, but today they are far less well known than her political writing. Edward Norton died in 1875. Two years later Caroline married a long time friend and supporter, Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. They died within months of each other later that year and are buried next to each other. Sadly, her oldest son predeceased her, and her only remaining son died within weeks of Stirling-Maxwell.

Caroline Norton never joined the earliest feminist circle, The Ladies of Langham Place, who had lobbied for the Matrimonial Causes Act, nor devoted herself to such women’s issues as education, the vote, or equality in employment. Still, her influential writing helped put the first cracks in the wall separating women from recognition under the law. She used her pen to stand up for herself and in doing so stood up for others who had no voice.*

Further Reading:

There are many pieces about Caroline Norton in print and on the Web. These three are particularly rich and well documented:

“Caroline Norton,” on Spartacus Educational.

Diniejko, Andreij, Contributing editor, “Caroline Norton: A Biographical Sketch,” on The Victorian Web.

Ockerbloom, Mary Mark, editor, “Caroline Norton (1808-1877)” on A Celebration of Women Authors, University of Pennsylvania Digital Library, 1994-2017.

Untitled design (15)Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She is a regular contributor to History Imagined and to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.

Her current series, Children of Empire, is set in the late Georgian/early Victorian era and focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire—and the women who help make them whole. The second book in the series, The Reluctant Wife, set in India and England, was just released.

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*Editor’s Note: Caroline Norton’s influence on modern matrimonial and custody laws cannot be understated. As a lovely (and telling) tribute, Daniel Maclise used her as the model for Justice in his fresco The Spirit of Justice in the House of Lords (top). See The Transfigurations of Caroline Norton for more on her influence on art and literature. -JC

The Ketubah, an Ancient Marriage Contract

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The Wedding. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1861)

Marriage is a contract. In terms of religion, a couple that marries enters into the default contract defined by their faith. When two people agree to marriage in the absence of a written contract, they also accept the default contract provided by the state and its laws.

The state’s contract is essentially economic, despite the romantic glow in which modern culture dresses marriage. Anyone who does genealogical research quickly realizes that the recording of marriage followed closely on the recording of deeds and wills, which are among the earliest recorded personal contracts. Other records—birth, death, even divorce—came much later. Marriage and property are deeply enmeshed in law, impacting inheritance and ownership. In our modern era, other economic factors impacted by marriage laws include tax breaks, benefits, and entitlements.

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A ketubah from 1740.

These laws and customs have not always been kind to women. Not long ago, English Common Law, under the doctrine of coverture, held that a married couple was one person under the law. That person, of course was the husband. A woman gave up all legal right—even the right to her own children—when she married. In that arrangement, it isn’t difficult to understand the need for marriage settlements, particularly among the property classes. A contract designed to assure a woman and her children would have some financial means of support in the event of widowhood provided at least some protection where the law didn’t.

In our own day, pre-nuptial agreements spell out property rights, particularly among the super wealthy in a similar manner. Couples also may establish contracts that spell out everything from the division of labor to the custody of pets.

Long before any of that, the Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, provided all married women with the security of certain financial arrangements. The earliest know example of a ketubah dates to 440 BC. Because such documents were legal rather than religious, they were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and this one is no exception. It outlines settlements paid to the bride’s father and the amount both families contributed to the dowry. It explicitly names the wife as the beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

At no time in history has the ketubah had anything to do with purchasing a bride. In Judaic law husbands did not have property rights over their wives. The ketubah is a “charter of women’s rights in marriage and men’s duties.” A ketubah is not, actually, a contract between husband and wife. It is traditionally a document in which witnesses verify the groom has met his obligations and may marry, and that the bride has freely accepted his proposal. The witnesses testify that the groom will meet all human and financial obligations, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

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A ketubah from Gibraltar, 1826.

The elements in a traditional ketubah are:

  • Date, place and names
  • Testimony that the proposal has been made
  • Promise of basic support to “honor, provide, and support.” The promise of food, clothing, and conjugal rights are a woman’s right and a husband’s obligation and considered so fundamental to marriage they would be required even without a contract. This is the heart of the contract.
  • Promise of specific amounts to the wife in the event the marriage terminates (designed as a deterrent to divorce in a male dominated society)
  • Testimony that the bride has accepted the proposal as outlined above.
  • Promise of a dowry given to the bride by her father including such items and valuable she might bring to her new home. The groom’s acceptance is noted and he provides and additional gift to the bride.
  • Testimony that the groom agrees to a mortgage or lien on all his belongings including “the mantle on my shoulders,” to meet the obligations of the contract should it become necessary.

The promise of the woman’s conjugal rights is interesting because of the contrast to other religious traditions. In Jewish tradition marriage is holy, and not entirely, or even primarily, intended for procreation. The Torah Genesis 2:18 states “it is not good for man to be alone,” indicating companionship as the goal of marriage. Refraining from marriage is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

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A Persian ketubah, 1879.

In “An Open Heart,” my contribution to the Bluestocking Belles’ 2016 holiday anthology, Holly and Hopeful Hearts, Adam proposes to Esther privately first to make sure she is willing. She accepts his proposal publicly when it is put to her by a matchmaker, but begins to question the elements of the ketubah. To the horror of the matchmaker and her elders, she and Adam agree to add clauses about the education of their daughters. Esther demands that they receive equal opportunity for at least Judaic learning within the family, while the two of them continue to support women’s education more broadly.

Now couples routinely modify the traditional text to reflect their beliefs going much farther than Esther and Adam. One site lists texts for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Same Sex, Secular Humanist, and Sephardic marriages as well as a “write your own” option. Couples generally sign the ketubah shortly before the wedding, as do two witnesses. The document becomes a family treasure, often a work of art in fine calligraphy that is framed and hung in the home.

holly-and-hopeful-hearts-2Caroline Warfield grew up in a peripatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.

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Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Coverture

Ketubah.com: The Origins of the Ketubah.

Lamm, Maurice. The Marriage Contract (Ketubah). Chabad.org.

Rich, Tracey. Marriage. Judaism 101.

Child Trafficking in the Nineteenth Century

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Child workers in Newton, NC. Lewis Hine.

News organizations and documentary producers have made us all too aware of the horrors of trafficking children. The fate of women and girls of any age coerced and trapped as sex workers horrifies. Boys are not immune. This evil isn’t new, and may in fact be as ancient as the oldest profession. This article will concentrate on the nineteenth century, one in which it has been estimated that over half the prostitutes in Paris were minors, and London brothels notoriously traded in virgin girls.

In our day we generally assume that trafficked women, girls, and, yes, boys have been kidnapped, or are runaways who wandered into the clutches of their keepers unaware. Occasionally, we hear something even worse: the story of parents who’ve sold a child as a sex slave. Child selling was much more common two hundred years ago.

It is helpful to look at laws surrounding custody as a background. In Europe, and in England in particular, children were regarded as the property of their father to do with as he chose. English Common Law regarded wives as having no property rights partially on the theory (with biblical echoes) that a married couple became one person. That person, of course, was the husband. Because they had no property rights, women had no “ownership” of their children. Custom assumed that a man would cherish his wife and children and manage their lives wisely and benignly, but of course that wasn’t always the case.

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A Virgin. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1892.

The property rights of the father were absolute up to the passage of The Custody of Children Act of 1839, which provided non-adulterous mothers with rights to custody of children under seven and access to older ones. It is considered the first feminist law. Testimony during the debate includes heart-rending examples of fathers using children for financial leverage or to cow their wives into submission in various ways. The case of Caroline Norton, who was brutally beaten throughout her marriage, found innocent of adultery after she left her husband, but denied access to her children (one of which died in the place his father had hidden him), rallied public support. A step forward, yes, but one that largely impacted the upper classes. In the grinding poverty of the industrial revolution era, poor families had no recourse but to view their children as an asset.

The most lurid form of child selling refers to sale to brothel keepers, pimps, and individuals. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”

In the early 1800s press-gangs, state sponsored thugs charged with forcing young men into naval service were active. They weren’t above paying a bribe. They were legally entitled to impress boys as young as 15, it is easy to imagine some bending of that to meet quotas, particularly because ships of that era used very young boys as powder monkeys and servants. The navy encouraged this as a way of training up future seaman. Eleven or twelve were the commonly expected ages for boys to go to sea (Lord Nelson was ten) and boys were supposed to be at least 4’3″ tall. Research indicates many of them were orphans and/or had been in trouble with the law. Some of them undoubtedly went involuntarily and some were younger than expected. It is difficult—but not impossible—to imagine the impressment of a boy as young as seven. Could a father sell his son to a merchant ship? It seems likely if the man was hateful enough and the ship disreputable enough.

While prostitutes and powder monkeys make lurid and dramatic images, by far the most common form of child selling in the nineteenth century was for labor. Desperately poor parents often needed children to work as soon as they could be hired, relying on pitiful wages. They might also sell them as “pauper apprentices” to masters who could work them fourteen hours a day/seven days a week and beat them at will. The phrase “work them to death” is not unrealistic. If a family or orphaned children were placed in a workhouse, the house could and often did force the children to work or could sell them outright as pauper apprentices. The most notorious of these were children trapped as miners and those sold as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. The latter had to be quite young because climbers were forced to climb chimneys as narrow as eighteen inches. Stories of children killed or maimed in the mines, dying of lung disease, or mutilated in factory injuries are legion.

I began with the question, could a father sell his son in 1832. The answer, appallingly, is a resounding yes.

14551082_10154467181880833_776311429_o-2Caroline Warfield has degrees in history and library science. She has been at various times been an army brat, a librarian, a poet, a raiser of children, a nun, a bird watcher, an Internet and Web services manager, a conference speaker, an indexer, a tech writer, a genealogist, and, of course, a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she is now a writer of historical romance, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens, who sits in an office surrounded by windows and lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. You can find her at www.carolinewarfield.com.

A vile abusive father attempts to sell his son in Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife, out now.

Selected resources
Cossins, Anne. Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Feb 16, 2000, pp. 6-7. (Accessed via Google Books September 30, 2016)

“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” UK Parliament: Living Heritage. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

Pietsch, Roland. “Ships Boys and Youth Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” The Northern Mariner: Online Edition, Canadian Nautical Research Society. (Accessed October 1, 2016)

Venning, Annabel. “Britain’s Child Slaves,” The Daily Mail, 17 September 2010. (Accessed September 30, 2016)