The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton
Caroline, granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan, marries George Norton and finds him to be violent and unpredictable. She was already a noted poet, and with her songs, poems and novels helped support their family. Much admired, she was flirtatious and knew many of the haut ton. George accused her of adultery (known then as criminal conversation) with Lord Melbourne, at the time Prime Minister. George lost his case, but Caroline’s reputation was ruined. Women were unable to appear in court to defend themselves. They owned nothing, and could not sign leases or contracts. Husbands could claim any earnings or inheritance, could sell their possessions, repudiate their debts and prevent them from seeing their children.
Driven from her home, Caroline campaigned for changes to the law, writing pamphlets and letters, lobbying politicians. It was largely due to her efforts that the Infant Custody Act, the first to give women some legal rights, was passed. It gave mothers a right to see their children. She supported later legislation over financial matters.
Atkinson manages a huge cast and quotes from numerous letters and press reports. This is a devastating account of the position of married women in the early 19th century.