A British historian’s punctilious narrative about the tragic but colorful life of Caroline Norton (1808–1877), a neglected 19th-century champion of women’s rights.
In 1836, an English barrister named George Norton charged the then–prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for having had “ ‘criminal conversation’ (sexual relations)” with his beautiful writer-wife, Caroline. British courts ruled in favor of the defendants, and Melbourne was able to recover his reputation and career. However, his alleged lover’s name was permanently tarnished. Drawing on research that includes more than 1,500 of Caroline Norton’s letters, Atkinson (Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front, 2010, etc.) offers an exceptionally intimate biography of the outspoken female who transformed the more than 30 years of abuse she suffered at the hands of an unscrupulous husband into a reason to fight for a change in the legal status of wives and mothers. During that time, British laws regarded married women as little more than possessions. Husbands were free to “dispose of [them] as [they] wished,” and women had no say in what became of their children. Everything women brought into a marriage, including inheritances and all personal effects, along with any job earnings they had, also belonged to their husbands. While men could easily divorce their wives for adultery, women had to prove their husbands were unfaithful and guilty of bigamy or incest. Norton’s efforts led to groundbreaking legislation that ensured the parental, economic and legal rights of married women; yet she herself was to enjoy only a brief moment of happiness in the last few months of an otherwise stormy life. Atkinson’s work is notable for its narrative finesse and probing analysis of Caroline Norton’s relationships with her husband, Melbourne and her many associates, who included Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens. While women’s studies scholars and historians may appreciate such treatment, general readers may balk at the rigorousness of Atkinson’s presentation and the length of the book itself.
Thorough but perhaps overlavish with detail.