Wednesday, 23 April 2014

celebrating Caroline Norton

Pollok Park, Glasgow.  Top day out.
Last week we visited Pollok Park and House in Glasgow.  Have you been?  It's so worth a visit, but you'll need to be quick because the Burrell collection is going very soon.  We had fun in the park, enjoyed the Burrell collection, saw deer, and went on a tour of the house, which seemed to last for an entire aeon.  One of the many pictures which were explained, in great detail to us, was of Caroline Norton.  She's a very interesting woman, who I think would have been rather marvellous to share a bottle of Rioja with, so I thought I'd tell you about her.

To do this, I've got lots of information from a great website all about her and her sisters.  You'll find it here.

Caroline was one of three sisters in a posh family on hard times in the 1820s.  They needed to find husbands, husbands who could keep them well, and would get married without a dowry being offered.  The eldest married in 1826, and fell in love with her husband after that.  Then it was Caroline's turn.  

Caroline is described as being intelligent, funny, flirtatious, and sarcastic.  Outgoing and head-strong.  She wasn't ugly, but her little sister was beautiful.  It was necessary to get Caroline married off before her younger sister could marry.  Caroline was popular with older men, but rather scared the younger ones.  She only got one proposal, which did not seem ideal, but with rising pressure for her sister to wed, Caroline accepted it.

This portrait of Caroline Norton hangs
at Pollok House, and is one of three
paintings they have on copper.
She married the Hon. George Norton in June, 1827.  He was seven years her senior, a barrister who did not practice, and a rampant Tory (she, like the rest of her family, was a Radical).  George refused to discuss anything with her, claiming to dislike 'cleverness' (probably because he was lacking in it).  They argued over politics, and lots of other things, including money.  He really did not have the income he'd said he had, and didn't like to do work which he felt beneath him.  He tried to tame her spirit, and arguments became physical.  

Caroline meanwhile turned to writing, to support them.  Her first book came out in 1829, and she also had a son.  Fletcher.  She loved writing, and motherhood.  Caroline asked family friends to find a position her husband would accept, and started to host Whig political get-togethers to build networks.  Her husband was offered a position as a magistrate, and the family had another income.  Caroline carried on earning through writing, and also had another baby - Brinsley.  

Things turned for the worse in 1832, when Caroline was pregnant with her third baby (William).  George was increasingly violent, and her family wanted her to stay away.  She couldn't, because that would involve losing her children, but in 1835, pregnant for the fourth time, George beat Caroline so badly that she miscarried.  After this, Caroline and the children sheltered with her relatives, while George stayed with his rich cousin, Margaret Vaughan.  At Easter of 1836, while the children were visiting George, he sent them to Margaret Vaughan, and refused to allow Caroline access to their family home.  It was his right, as the husband, to do with the children, and his wife's belongings, as he wished.

Soon after, George sued for divorce, accusing the Prime Minister of having an affair with his wife.  He was also asking for substantial damages from the PM.  As you can imagine, there was quite a hubbub in the press, and the government certainly wobbled.  Caroline, being a woman, was only a small cog in the divorce case between the two men.  She had no legal identity without her husband, and could neither attend the trial, nor testify.  However, the trial was a farce, it was clear that no affair had happened, and the jury found unanimously for the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, Caroline's name had been tarnished by this association with scandal.  She consulted lawyers to attempt to sue for divorce, and found that only a man could sue for divorce, and that only on the grounds of adultery.  George would not grant Caroline a divorce, and would not allow her to see her children.

Caroline set out to change the law.  She wrote, under her own name and others, and used her useful contacts once again, and is seen as being the force behind the Infant Custody Bill, passed in 1839.  It allowed mothers to petition for custody of young children, and access to older ones.

George found a way to foil her again.  He took their children to Scotland, where the new law did not apply.  In 1842, when her youngest son was injured in a fall from a horse, Caroline was informed by George, but not with urgency.  Not soon enough that she could see him before he died.

As Caroline's husband, George was also entitled to her income, which he kept, sometimes giving her an allowance.  Her lawyers advised her to refer bills to her husband for payment, which she did, but they were taken to court, and she was found to be responsible for the bills.  Again, Caroline set out to change the law.  If her husband were to profit from her writing, she would write solely about changing the law that allowed that to happen.

To make her case, Caroline had to show that women existed at all in the legal sense.  Caroline saw herself as someone who was priveleged to be able to fight the injustice done to all women.  She compared the position of women as like that of slavery.  She did not argue that men and women were equal, but that they should be treated equally under law.  The Married Woman's Property and Divorce Act passed in 1857.

After that Caroline carried on writing fiction, but increasingly suffered from ill-health, and was sad at the deaths of family members and friends.  Her oldest son, Fletcher, died of tuberculosis in 1859.  

Caroline never did get a divorce from George, but he died in 1875.  Her remaining son, Brinsley, soon became Lord Grantley (George's brother's title).  He was a Tory.  The current Baron Grantley is descended directly from Brinsley.  He worked for the Conservative party until deciding to join UKIP in 1993.  On Debretts his recreations are listed as Bridge (he's rather good) and smoking.  

In March of 1877, Caroline married her friend of twenty five years, Sir William Stirling-Maxwell (and therein lies the Pollok House connection).  It was a happy but brief marriage.  In early summer she became ill, and she died in June.  Sir William died seven months later.

Personally, I think Caroline Norton was a bit of a hero.  Thanks Caroline for improving the lot of women.

Other posts you might like:

The book challenge
Words at 23/4/14 - 80,000.  Yay!  I'm over 80,000 (although I suspect this will be going down shortly, as I divide the story into two books)
27,000 words done since the challenge began, 11,500 so far this month.
Where I'm at in First Draft - end of Chapter 16.
What I did last - a proposal.