The Case of the Married Woman by Antonia Fraser review – justice delayed

High up in the House of Lords there is a fresco depicting The Spirit of Justice, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1850. It’s a huge portrait of the 19th-century poet, novelist and campaigner Caroline Norton, her eyes cast upwards, the scales of justice held in one hand. As a celebrated beauty of the era, Norton was an obvious choice. But there was an irony to the portrait, because this was a woman who had been denied justice as a mother.

It was a classic story at the time. Married women had no rights – over their property, possessions or children. If husbands tired of their wives, they were entitled to throw them out and deprive them of access to their children. Caroline’s husband, George Norton, was an abusive man who had beaten her for years (allegedly causing a miscarriage); 에 1836 (when their sons were two, four and six), he locked her out of the house, sued for adultery and shipped the children off to his relatives.

The man with whom she was supposedly having an affair was Lord Melbourne, 국무 총리; his close friendship with Caroline had largely been encouraged by her husband (Melbourne had got the cash-strapped George a job as a magistrate). Journalists including Charles Dickens flocked to report on this celebrity scandal in which much was made of her “mannish” wit and unwomanly, writerly ways – the Satirist newspaper styled her as “the unblushing one”. Caroline was declared innocent but was still prevented from seeing her children. She used her skill as a writer and connections in parliament to initiate the Custody of Infants Act which was passed in 1839 and granted married women the right to petition for custody of children under seven.

슬프게도, this didn’t change her own situation. George simply moved the children to Scotland so they came under Scottish jurisdiction instead. What’s most painful about this story is that he was clearly using the children to punish and control Caroline. He kept proffering meetings with them and then changing his mind. And he doesn’t seem to have especially wanted to spend time with them himself. He was absent when their youngest son, Willie, went riding alone aged eight and fell off his pony. The servants weren’t able to care for the boy in the absence of proper medical help and he got blood poisoning. Caroline was summoned only to be told that her son was dead.

Fraser gives insightful judgment on the questions that remain questions despite Caroline’s extensive archive. We still can’t be sure if she committed adultery with Melbourne, 예를 들면, and Fraser thinks she didn’t, given the tone of the letters between them even when closest. Melbourne comes out of the relationship fairly well. He was protective of Caroline (and Fraser is good on how much it mattered to her to have male protection) and left her an annuity at a point when she desperately needed it (George continued to own all proceeds of her writing, even after they separated). Melbourne was not much of a solace during the trial itself, 그러나. “A woman should never part from her husband whilst she can remain with him,” he wrote at a time when it was clearly impossible for her to do so.

Fraser’s is a spirited book, particularly moving on Norton’s old age. It is impressive to see one of our most important intellectual figures turning her mind to this remarkable woman from an earlier, different and not so different era. I would recommend Diane Atkinson’s longer, 2012 biography for anyone who wants to get to know Norton and her campaigns in detail. Both writers are sensitive readers of her own writing, and are judicious in the face of her frequent assertions of male superiority. “There can be no equality, any more than there can be a sea without a shore!” she wrote – but didn’t the campaigners for abolishing slavery say something similar? I agree with Fraser that despite her depth of feeling for her children, Norton was a pragmatist: “The practical details of women’s lives and how to better them were her concern.”

Fraser seems on the whole to think that the feminists have now succeeded, but I’m inclined to agree with Atkinson’s suggestion that it’s a story that reveals that not enough has changed. Atkinson ends her book with this sentence: “George Norton died in 1875, but there have been many George Nortons since, and this kind of behaviour persists.” It is true that there are still plenty of men physically abusing their wives, plenty of men still using their children to punish their wives long after their marriages have ended. Reading about the Nortons has also been for me an exercise in seeing the long prehistory of our continuing inequality of power. Helena Kennedy in her book Eve Was Framed cites precedents and evidence to show that “a web of prejudice, privilege and misinformation affects women” in all their dealings with the law. “The symbol of justice may be a woman, but why should we settle for symbols?” Kennedy asks. It’s a question that Caroline Norton continues to pose from her lofty perch, rolling her eyes skyward in the House of Lords.

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