The starting point of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson is the legal case brought by George Norton against William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, in 1836 for compensation for illegal use of his property, Norton’s wife Caroline. Norton was, in essence, suing Melbourne for adultery. Norton lost the case, Melbourne remained as Prime Minister but Caroline Norton was left disgraced, her reputation ruined, her friendship with Melbourne in tatters, denied access to her children by her husband and unable by law to divorce him.`
Atkinson then traces the lives of writer and poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan (granddaughter of the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan) and George Chapple Norton and their families up to the point of the legal case and beyond, following the Caroline’s continuous struggles against her hypocritical bullying husband to gain some access to her children and to secure enough money to live on. Caroline Norton turned her considerable energies to improving the legal position of separated and divorced women. Once married, women had no separate legal identity, no right even to their own earnings after separation and no right to enter into legal agreements, even such as a separation agreement. Through pamphleteering and lobbying, Caroline’s campaign resulted in the passage of the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 which gave women defined rights regarding access to their children. Caroline Norton was the model for the 1849 fresco of Justice by Daniel Maclise in the House of Lords – she was seen by many as a victim of injustice. Although Caroline Norton fought for justice for women, particularly mothers, she stated that she was no supporter of the ‘wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality’ (p.388).
Atkinson draws on a wealth of archival research in this book and presents a very readable and detailed, though at times unpleasant, story of one woman who used the trials of her life to the benefit of others.
I discovered mention of this book in the author’s note to Christine Wells’ The Wife’s Tale. The Norton case is one of the sources on which Wells based the historical strand of her novel.
A detailed review can be found here.