Lady Antonia Fraser (History, 1950) has written a new book called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women.
Her book, being published tomorrow (6 May), is a story about the scandal of 19th century Britain: the sensational trial of Caroline Norton for adultery with the first Victorian Prime Minister.
Poet, pamphleteer and artist's muse, Caroline Norton dazzled nineteenth-century society with her vivacity and intelligence. After her marriage in 1828 to the MP George Norton, she continued to attract friends and admirers to her salon in Westminster, which included the young Disraeli. Most prominent among her admirers was the widowed Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Racked with jealousy, George Norton took the Prime Minister to court, suing him for damages on account of his 'Criminal Conversation' (adultery) with Caroline. A dramatic trial followed. Despite the unexpected and sensational result - acquittal - Norton legally denied Caroline access to her three children under seven. He also claimed her income as an author for himself, since the copyrights of a married woman belonged to her husband.
Yet Caroline refused to despair. Beset by the personal cruelties perpetrated by her husband and a society whose rules were set against her, she chose to fight, not surrender. She channelled her energies in an area of much-needed reform: the rights of a married woman and specifically those of a mother. Over the next few years she campaigned tirelessly, achieving her first landmark victory with the Infant Custody Act of 1839. Provisions which are now taken for granted, such as the right of a mother to have access to her own children, owe much to Caroline, who was determined to secure justice for women at all levels of society from the privileged to the dispossessed.
Lady Antonia Fraser told the Guardian: “A married woman, in short, had no legal existence...this fills one with sympathy for her, particularly being deprived of her children. She was a very good mother … the agony of not seeing them.
“What she did after that, instead of wailing or giving up which I think almost anyone might have, she became a campaigner, she wrote pamphlets, she lobbied politicians.
“All of this sprang from this terrible personal tragedy...why I admire her so much is that she didn’t accept defeat.”
In recognition of Caroline’s work, a blue plaque has been unveiled on 3 Chesterfield Street, the Mayfair townhouse where she lived alone, campaigning and writing.
To buy a copy of the book go to https://amzn.to/2Rsispi