Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, June 15, 2015

Lady Caroline Norton and the Hard Truths of "Traditional Marriage"

Caroline Sheridan Norton (died 15 June 1877)


Caroline Norton, 1832,
portrait by George Hayter
Born in 1808, Caroline Sheridan was the granddaughter of the famed English playwright and notable politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and her grandmother, Elizabeth Linley Sheridan, was a musician and performer (though after their marriage, Sheridan would not allow his wife to continue performing).

Caroline Sheridan's father, Thomas Sheridan, was a noted actor and playwright, but notably an unsuccessful politician, while her mother, Caroline Henrietta Calender Sheridan, was a writer who published three novels: Carwell, Or Crime and Sorrow (1830), Aims and Ends (1833), and Oonagh Lynch, (1833).

For Caroline Sheridan, then, political activism and artistic achievement were a family affair. Like her parents and grandfather, she wrote--novels, plays, and poetry.

Less happily, Caroline Sheridan's marriage to George Norton was a family tragedy. Rather than include biographical information here, I've linked to a wonderful essay about Caroline Sheridan Norton's life at The Victorian Web. Instead of focusing on the particular circumstances of her disastrous marriage, I'd like to focus on what she made of that disaster: her efforts to improve the status of women and children under British law. Out of the experiences of her own life, Norton campaigned to achieve three landmark pieces of legislation in Britain: the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, and the Married Women's Property Act 1870.

I spent a long career teaching women's history and women's literature, and the status of the lives of women in the medieval and early-modern periods is very difficult for students to comprehend. But why doesn't she just leave, I've heard students frequently ask--whether we are talking about historical figures, like Margery Kempe or Juana of Castile, or literary characters, like Shakespeare's Katharina or Desdemona. This is still a question we hear asked about women today, in the twenty-first century, suffering in abusive or exploitative domestic circumstances. 

Because it's often so hard for us to assess the status of women in the past--even as late as the mid-nineteenth century--I thought I'd post here from Norton's 1855 pamphlet, A Letter to the Queen On Lord Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill. It is as succinct a statement of the realities of "traditional" marriage for women as I know.* 

Norton opens by addressing herself directly Queen Victoria. "Madam," she writes, "I will not do Your Majesty the injustice of supposing that the very different aspect the law wears in England for the female sovereign and the female subject must render you indifferent to what those subjects may suffer. . . . I therefore submit a brief and familiar exposition of the laws relating to women"--laws relating to women who are not the queen, that is.

These are the laws that affect the women in Victoria's kingdom--a kingdom where a woman rules as queen, and where a woman is also "head of the Church, head of the law, ruler of millions of men." 

But for all other women, women who are not Queen Victoria, Norton compiles a devastating list:
A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation or desertion cannot alter this position. Unless divorced by special enactment in the House of Lords, the legal fiction holds her to be "one" with her husband, even though she may never see or hear of him.
She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property. . . . It is now provided that a will shall be revoked by marriage, but the claim of the husband to all that is his wife's exists in full force. An English wife has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases, even though they be the gifts of relatives or friends, or bought before marriage.
An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit. She may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress. No matter: the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid.
An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labor or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes or keep a school, her salary is the husband's, and he could compel a second payment and treat the first as void if paid to the wife without his sanction.
An English wife may not leave her husband's house. Not only can he sue her for "restitution of conjugal rights," but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge and who may "harbour her"--as it is termed--and carry her away by force, with or without the aid of the police.
If the wife sue for separation for cruelty, it must be "cruelty that endangers life or limb," and if she has once forgiven, or, in legal phrase, "condoned" his offences, she cannot plead them, though her past forgiveness only proves that she endured as long as endurance was possible.
If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself. She has no means of proving the falsehood of his allegations. She is not represented by attorney nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover for "damages." . . .  
If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband a vinculo [from the bonds of matrimony] however profligate he may be. No law court can divorce in England. A special act of Parliament annulling the marriage is passed for each case. The House of Lords grants this almost as a matter of course to the husband, but not to the wife. In only four instances (two of which were cases of incest) has the wife obtained a divorce to marry again.
She cannot prosecute for a libel. Her husband must prosecute and in cases of enmity and separation, of course she is without a remedy.
She cannot sign a lease or transact responsible business.
She cannot claim support, as a matter of personal right, from her husband. The general belief and nominal rule is, that her husband is "bound to maintain her." That is not the law. He is not bound to her. He is bound to his country; bound to see that she does not cumber the parish in which she resides. If it be proved that means sufficient are at her disposal, from relatives or friends, her husband is quit of his obligation and need not contribute a farthing, even if he have deserted her or be in receipt of money which is hers by inheritance.
She cannot bind her husband by any agreement, except through a third party. A contract formally drawn out by a lawyer--witnessed and signed by her husband--is void in law, and he can evade payment of an income so assured by the legal quibble that "a man cannot contract with his own wife."
Separation from her husband by consent, or for his ill usage, does not alter their mutual relation. He retains the right to divorce her after separation--as before--though he himself be unfaithful.
Her being, on the other hand, of spotless character and without reproach gives her no advantage in law. She may have withdrawn from his roof knowing that he lives with "his faithful housekeeper," having suffered personal violence at his hands, having "condoned" much, and being able to prove it by unimpeachable testimony, or he may have shut the doors of her house against her--all this is quite immaterial. The law takes no cognizance of which is to blame. As her husband, he has a right to all that is hers; as his wife, she has no right to anything that is his. As her husband, he may divorce her (if truth or false swearing can do it) as his wife. The utmost "divorce" she could obtain is permission to reside alone, married to his name. The marriage ceremony is a civil bond for him and an indissoluble sacrament for her, and the rights of mutual property which that ceremony is ignorantly supposed to confer are made absolute for him and null for her.
Of course an opposite picture may be drawn. There are bad, wanton, irreclaimable women, as there are vicious, profligate, tyrannical men, but the difference is this: that to punish and restrain bad wives, there are laws, and very severe laws (to say nothing of social condemnation), while to punish or restrain bad husbands, there is, in England, no adequate law whatever. Indeed, the English law holds out a sort of premium on infidelity, for there is no doubt that the woman who is divorced for a lover and marries him suffers less (except in conscience) than the woman who does not deserve to suffer at all--the wife of a bad husband, who can inflict what he pleases, whether she remain in her home or attempt to leave it.
"Such, however, is 'the law,'" Norton sums up, as she draws her list to a close--demonstrating "the ridicule, confusion, and injustice of its provisions" for women.

American readers may recognize the names of some of the women in the United States who played a crucial role in what has become known as the "first-wave" feminist movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott, for example. 

Lady Caroline Norton is a contemporary of those American women, a founding mother we should all remember. 

*In the passage from Letter to the Queen, I've edited lightly, normalizing capitalization, spelling, and punctuation. I've retained the outraged italics from the 1855 publication!