Caroline Norton (1808-1877), granddaughter of the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, married George Norton at age 19. They had three sons but their marriage was a disaster. George lost his seat in parliament, had financial difficulties and assaulted his wife on several occasions.
She became a successful writer, grew famous and had influential friends. Her husband accused her of adultery with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and took legal action which failed.
But when her husband locked her out of the family home and refused to let her see her children, Caroline discovered she was trapped by English family law because she was a married woman.
With writing skills and influential friends, Caroline Norton set to work bringing such unequal treatment to the notice of politicians and the public. She wrote long letters to Queen Victoria about her problems. Her case interested both men and women and Sir Thomas Talfourd agreed to introduce a bill in parliament. Talfourd's Act (1839) enabled a married woman to apply to a court for custody of her children until the age of 7, if separated from her husband and not guilty of adultery.
Caroline's husband was determined to protect his claim to her property. Since he was legally entitled to her income from writing, she devoted herself to writing pamphlets about women's property rights and from 1857, separated and deserted wives could legally control their own property.
More information about Caroline Norton is available in Documents near the end of this section.