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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by…
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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

by Diane Atkinson

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Caroline Sheridan (1808 – 1877) was intelligent and beautiful. She was also poor and married a man, George Norton, who lived off his wife’s literary earnings and encouraged her friendships with powerful men to further his shaky career. None was more helpful than the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne who became the love of Caroline’s life. After years of Norton’s physical and emotional abuse, he sued the PM for compensation in his criminal conversation suit of 1836. The suite was rejected by the court and he was mocked by the press and public as a fool but Caroline was still unable to divorce him even after her humiliation. In revenge he took her children away from her citing her conduct. The ironies are surreal.

So began Caroline Norton’s campaign for justice for separated wives and equal access to their children. It was a campaign that meant she stepped out of the drawing-room and into a maelstrom of publicity and parliamentary lobbying and she was brilliant at it. The Infant Custody Act (1839), the Matrimonial Causes (Divorces) Act (1857) and the Married Women’s Property Act (1870) all were influenced by her writings and experience. To vex her Norton would offer access to her children and then withdraw it and even wrote letters to her signed with the name of a murderer. When he was sued for her debts she lambasted him in court: ‘I am ashamed for your client if he does not feel ashamed of himself.... I know Mr Norton can cheat me ... [a] man who calls himself a magistrate, a barrister and a gentleman ... I do not ask for my rights, I have no rights – I have only wrongs.... I did not deserve the scandal of 1836 and I do not deserve the scandal of 1853.’ As Diane Atkinson concludes, every woman who is granted custody of her children or financial support owes a debt of gratitude to her.
1 vote Sarahursula | Dec 27, 2012 |
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For Pauline and Peter Tanner
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The twenty-second of June 1836, a warm drizzly day on London. (Prologue)
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was born in London on 22 March 1808 to the sound of coughing.
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Westminster, London, 22 June 1836. It is a fine, fresh morning that will become hot as the day progresses. Crowds are gathering at the Court of Common Pleas. On trial is Caroline Sheridan, a beautiful and clever young woman who had been manoeuvred into marrying the Honourable George Norton when she was just nineteen.… (more)

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