Caroline Norton's Defense: English Laws for Women in the 19th Century

Caroline Norton's Defense: English Laws for Women in the 19th Century

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Overview

This account of the author's experience at the hands of an "imperfect state of law" in early 19th-century England makes a passionate plea for equal justice for women. Largely as a result of this book the passage of the Married Women's Property Act and reform of the English Marriage and Divorce Laws occurred some years later.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780915864881
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/17/1995
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

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Caroline Norton's Defense

English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century


By Caroline Norton

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1982 Joan Huddleston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-915864-88-1


CHAPTER 1

I begin by an explanation of our mutual position as to money-matters; because Mr Norton has brought our disputes to a crisis on a pecuniary claim; because he has falsified the whole history of those matters; and because, from the first, our position in this respect was extraordinary and anomalous; inasmuch as instead of Mr Norton being, either by the exercise of his profession or patrimonial property, what Germans call the "Bread finder," it was on my literary talents and the interest of my family, that our support almost entirely depended, while I still had a home.

Mr Norton has lately spoken (in the fabulous histories he has given to the public through the medium of the newspapers) of the profound and patient attachment he entertained for me previous to our union. I do most solemnly declare that at the time he first demanded me of my mother in marriage, I had not exchanged six sentences with him on any subject whatever. Mr Norton was brother to Lord Grantley; and the governess to whose care I was confided, happening to be sister to Lord Grantley's agent, the female members of the Norton family, from courtesy to this lady, invited her and such of her pupils as she chose to accompany her, to Lord Grantley's house.

A sister of Mr Norton's, an eccentric person who affected masculine habits and played a little on the violin, amused herself with my early verses and my love of music, and took more notice of me than of my companions. The occasions on which I saw this lady were not frequent; and still more rare were the occasions on which I had also seen her brother; it was therefore with a feeling of mere astonishment, that I received from my governess the intelligence that she thought it right to refuse me the indulgence of accompanying her again to Lord Grantley's till she had heard from my mother; as Mr Norton had professed his intention of asking me in marriage. This lady is still living, and can answer for the exact truth of my statement.

Almost the first step Mr Norton took, after he had made my mother's acquaintance, was to beg her interest with a member of the royal family, whose good work with the Chancellor Eldon was to procure him a small legal appointment; and from the day we were married, he never ceased impressing upon me, that as I brought him no present fortune (my portion being only payable on my mother's death), I was bound to use every effort with the political friends of my grandfather, to get him lucrative promotion in his profession. I found this more difficult than I expected. The memory of Mr Sheridan among the Whig party, was not held in that affection which in my inexperience I had fancied; and if it had been, I do not know that it would have been a sufficient plea for serving Mr Norton, who could put forward no personal claims for employment. I did, however, what my husband requested.

I besieged, with variously worded letters of importunity, the friends whom I knew as the great names linked with the career of my grandfather; and while waiting the result of the petitions I had sown on so wide a field, I turned my literary ability to account, by selling the copyright of my first poem to Messrs. Ebers of Bond street. It is not without a certain degree of romantic pride that I look back, and know, that the first expenses of my son's life were defrayed from the price of that first creation of my brain; and before that child was two years old, I had procured for my husband, — (for the husband who has lately overwhelmed me, my sons, and his dead patron with slander, rather than yield a miserable annuity) — a place worth a thousand a year; the arduous duty of which consisted in attending three days in the week, for five hours, to hear causes tried in the simplest forms of law.

From that day to the present, my husband has always considered that I ought to assist him — instead of his supporting me. The dependance upon my literary efforts for all extra resources, runs, as a matter of course, through all the letters I received from him during our union. The names of my publishers occur as if they were Mr Norton's bankers. If Murray of Albemarle street will not accept a poem, — if Bull of Holies street does not continue a magazine, — if Heath does not offer the editorship of an Annual, — if Saunders and Otley do not buy the MS. of a novel, — if Colburn's agreement is not satisfactory and sufficient, — if Power delays payment for a set of ballads, — if, in short, the wife has no earnings to produce, the husband professes himself to be "quite at a loss to know" how the next difficulty of payment is to be got over. On one occasion, when I had been employed to write words to Spanish music, by an officer of some distinction, and was extremely loth to express to this gentleman the opinion Mr Norton wished conveyed to him, — namely, that payment was too long delayed, — Mr Norton himself undertook the task of dunning him, for the stipulated sum by which he was to profit. I worked hard, and was proud of my success. I brought to my many tasks all the energy which youth, high spirits, ambition, good health, and the triumph of usefulness could inspire; joined to a wish for literary fame, so eager, that I sometimes look back and wonder if I was punished for it, by unenviable and additional notoriety.

I believe that foreigners, — and even our own mercantile classes, — have little idea of the very narrow provision which the usual "Right of the Eldest Son" leaves for the younger members of noble English houses. The rule is excellent, as a means of perpetuating a powerful and wealthy Aristocracy; the chief never being impoverished by that perpetual subdivision which takes place in other countries. But one result is, that the younger brothers and sons of Peers, (the habits of whose childhood and youth naturally were to enjoy an equality of luxury with the Heir,) are often embarrassed by the slenderness of their means: and this was our case. Luckily for me, light serial literature was the express fashion of the day. Nor did the greatest authors we had, disdain to contribute their share to the ephemeral "Annuals" and Periodicals, which formed the staple commodity of the booksellers at that time.

I rejoiced then, at finding, — woman though I was, — a career in which I could earn that which my husband's profession had never brought him. Out of our stormy quarrels I rose undiscouraged, and worked again to help him and forward the interests of my children. I have sat up all night, — even at times when I have had a young infant to nurse, — to finish tasks for some publisher. I made in one year a sum of 1,400l. by my pen; and I have a letter from Mr Norton's own brother, proving that even when we were on terms of estrangement, I still provided, without grudging, money that was to be spent on his pleasures.

As time went on, Mr Norton, still unsatisfied, urged upon me the task of obtaining for him, something more valuable than his magistracy, and of which the duties should be more agreeable. The petitioning recommenced; Lord Lyndhurst became Chancellor, and the hope of a legal appointment was again indulged. Nothing, however, was yet obtained; when a woman, to whose interference about my children our final quarrel was owing, began to rule entirely in my home. She has since left Mr Norton two thousand a year; and he openly entreated my patience with her, on account of her money. Lord Melbourne, for whose interest we had again applied, showed great reluctance to use it on Mr Norton's behalf; and had already expressed, in no measured terms, his regret at having made the former appointment. Undaunted by this fact, Mr Norton merely observed that if Lord Melbourne would not obtain a place, he could privately oblige him; and he applied accordingly to the patron he has lately reviled, for the loan of 1,500l.

Mr Norton considered that this loan was declined. Lord Melbourne told me that he merely demurred, as he doubted whether in reality it would be a loan. The condition of our affairs was not exactly known to me until that time; though the irritation arising from non-success was visited upon me. One of the bitter quarrels which blighted our home arose. Its record will be found with others; the present outline being confined to pecuniary matters. After that quarrel was made up, and I had returned to Mr Norton, he entered more fully upon a statement of his affairs; urging upon me most strenuously, to endeavour, as I had done before, to assist him, either by getting a more lucrative appointment or a loan of money. I expressed my astonishment that his own patrimonial resources never seemed to yield us anything; and received the information that there were no proceeds forthcoming from the hereditary estates. I doubted the correctness of this assertion; but wrote the very unwelcome intelligence, both to my mother and to one of the trustees of my marriage settlement. From my mother I received a letter containing the following passage: —

Hampton Court Palace.

Nothing could be more painful and surprising to me, than your statement of Norton's money-affairs. Had not D.K. vouched for the respectability of Mr P., and consequently for the fidelity of his statement of the property destined for the younger brothers and sisters of Lord Grantley, I never should have suffered you to marry N. He (Mr P) distinctly stated that property to be land, to the value of 30,000l., and if I get his direction from you, I will expostulate with him on the monstrous untruth then advanced; which may perhaps induce him, in his own vindication, to show how you have been cheated; which it is evident you have been. If Charles and James Norton join you, this affair might be cleared a little, and it is a manifest duty that you should exert yourself, for your poor children.


Exert myself, God knows I did; both to understand, and to avert, the mismanagement (or worse) that was taking place. The letter I addressed to my trustee, produced the following reply.

31st August, 1835.

As I was on the point of leaving London, Norton applied to me for my consent to raise a portion of the trust fund and to place the principal at his disposal. I told him I could do nothing of this kind without legal advice, and I could give no consent without the previous sanction of my solicitors. About a fortnight ago he applied to me to sign an order on Coutts and Co. with reference to this same trust fund. I returned it unexecuted, to await the sanction of those in whose legal advice I could confide. Your statement of the present circumstances of the case, proves the precaution to have been necessary. As relates to Norton's power of raising money, he is clearly restrained by the terms of his own marriage settlement; and no personal debts of his, incurred subsequently to that settlement, can defeat rights which were vested by it; in other words, his Children have a better claim than his creditors to the principal sum secured under his marriage settlement.


I beg attention to the date of these letters; which were written but six months before our final separation, followed by the trial, attributed by Lord Melbourne (as will be seen in his correspondence) to another pecuniary endeavour on Mr Norton's part. I was already the mother of three children; and it must be confessed that our prospects were rendered discouraging by the extreme reluctance of powerful friends to do anything more for Mr Noton; and by the total and scornful alienation from him of all the male members of my family. I explained our position very fully to one of the kindest friends I had, — the Right Honourable Edward Ellice; and he drew out a paper of conditions, in which it was expressly stipulated that, if the difficulties in which Mr Norton found himself could be lightened, and any arrangement come to, our current income in future, and the whole management of our affairs, should be left in my hands; a stipulation significant enough as to Mr Norton's conduct in money-matters.

Our separation took place a few months after these discussions. Mr Norton did not at first speculate on divorcing me; he notified me that my family might support me, or that I might write for my bread; and that my children were by law at his sole disposal. Colonel Leicester Stanhope (now Earl of Harrington), who was commissioned, as a mutual friend, to announce this determination, appended to its following comment: — "N's proposal about your income is too bad, too shabby, too mean, too base; he grafts you on your brother." And the trustee I had previously consulted, observed: — "The propositions (which I return) are no less absurd than contemptible; and you could not hesitate one instant in rejecting them. They must think you have lost your brains, when they call on you to subsist by them, if they think you are fool enough to be gulled or bullied into such terms."

Mr Norton, however, soon proved what measures are at an English husband's disposal, whose wife demurs to any terms he chooses to impose. Those who saw their own advantage in our quarrel, advised him to make Lord Melbourne an object of attack; and under our mercantile law of "Damages," Mr Norton saw his advantage in adopting the suggestion. Lord Erskine, in one of his divorce cases, had obtained a verdict of 7000l.; (a sum which, in that particular case, was said to involve the whole fortune of the defendant) and Sir W. Follett did his best to emulate Lord Erskine, in urging this main object on the jury. He repeated in every form, his argument for aggravated compensation to his client. Sometime he put it as a simple and inevitable legal result, — "If you are satisfied (as satisfied I think you must be, of the facts stated), it remains for you to consider what damages you will give." Sometimes with a skilful and business-like allusion to the wealth which made a large sum a natural and proper award — "Of course," he says, "Of course, the position of the parties in this case, the rank of one of the parties, and the mode in which they lived being considered, it is for you, Gentlemen, under all circumstances, to say what may appear to you a proper amount of damages." Sometimes, as an evidence of the wrong sustained, and the degree of that wrong, — "The amount of damages, — though not as a personal compensation, — must be considered in the result." Sometimes, as an appeal to the passions and sympathies of the jurymen; saying of Lord Melbourne — "His rank is an aggravation — his age is an aggravation — and the hollow pretence of his being a friend of the plaintiff, is a still greater aggravation. ... It is then for you to say what damages you will give." Sometimes, with a sort of admonition to the jury to prove their own strictness of principle, by the amount of the penalty enforced, — "I call upon you to mark by your verdict, — in the only way in which the law allows, — your sense of the conduct of the defendant." Nothing was omitted to be urged that could be urged, on this point; and no doubt, — if the accusation had been believed, — very heavy damages would have been awarded; but the jury pronounced against Mr Norton, without even retiring to discuss their verdict, and the speculation failed; both as regarded political and pecuniary interests.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Caroline Norton's Defense by Caroline Norton. Copyright © 1982 Joan Huddleston. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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