The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton
Caroline Norton was a brilliant and beautiful woman, a descendant of Richard Sheridan, the playwright, and a poetess and novelist in her own right. In this well-researched biography, Atkinson has illuminated the role of women in the pre-Victorian and Victorian world of men.
The criminal conversation of the title is an accusation of adultery – for Caroline, it was with Lord Melbourne, who later became Prime Minister. Despite the fact that the accusations were unfounded (though it is apparent that Atkinson is not convinced), Caroline’s husband, a dastardly magistrate named George Norton, was able to withhold their three sons from their mother for years, to move them around like chess pieces to avoid contact with this tainted woman and to play Russian roulette with her finances. She, of course, was not permitted to have property. She was, after all, chattel.
But Caroline is a wily politician and a successful pamphleteer. Using her own talents and contacts, over the course of years, her unyielding belief in the rights of women – not equality, though – results in the passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. Quite a woman and a wonderful history of the period by a talented author.