When Caroline Sheridan married George Chapple Norton in 1827 she ceased to exist. According to the legal status quo, as a wife she no longer had any rights separate to her husband. He could abuse her, claim her work as his own, spend her earnings and prevent her from seeing their children — and still be on the right side of the law.
The Case of the Married Woman is the third book in Antonia Fraser’s unofficial trilogy about the major legal upheavals of the 19th century. The previous two volumes have dealt with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832 — both turning points in the understanding of individual rights. This volume is necessarily more diffuse, since Caroline Norton’s campaigning for the rights of married women resulted in more incremental changes.
Caroline was the granddaughter of the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the middle of three sisters celebrated across London as the ‘three graces’. Although her husband was only the second son of a baronet, as a barrister and a Tory MP he could at least provide the position in society that Caroline craved. Whig politics were in her blood and the Nortons’ home at Storey’s Gate in Westminster soon became a favoured salon of the political elite.
In this new study of Caroline’s life, Fraser takes care to sketch the character of her subject prior to the great tragedy that would come to define her. All of the Sheridans had ‘a whiff of the stage about them, along with an impressive reputation for brilliance,’ she writes, and Caroline was no different. A published novelist before her marriage, she specialised in sparkling conversation and ‘romantic teasing friendships’ with high-profile men.