[Caroline Norton (1808-77) was the grand-daughter of the Irish dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She married George Norton, a dissolute lawyer and had three sons. The breakdown of her marriage led indirectly to far-reaching changes in English family law. See the first four chapters of Family in this section. The following extracts are from her autobiography]
Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of and then stood silently looking out of the window at the quiet light of dawn, by way of contrast. Mr Norton desired I would 'cease my contemplations' and retire to rest as he had already done; and this mandate producing no result, he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to my door. Mr. Norton locked it and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards and the shock made my sister exceedingly ill.
[George Norton later accused his wife of adultery with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. He took an action of 'criminal conversation' against Lord Melbourne but lost the case.]
After the trial was over ... I learned the LAW as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney ...
Eventually the children were permitted to come to my brother's house; Mr Norton expressly limiting the time of their stay to one half-hour and sending them with two of the women who had been witnesses at the trial, who stated that their 'orders' were to remain in the room with me. I was not allowed to see even my baby of two years old without these 'witnesses'. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure ... Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control ...
His cruel carelessness was afterwards proved on a most miserable occasion. My youngest child, then a boy of eight years old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbour and died there of lockjaw consequent on the accident. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week - indeed to be at death's door - before he sent to inform me. Sir Fitzroy and Lady Kelly were staying with Mr Norton in the country. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said 'I am here - is my boy better?' 'No,' she said, 'he is not better - he is dead.' And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined.
Mr Norton asked my forgiveness then, as he had asked it often before; he sent his elder child to plead for him - for well he knew what my children were to me; he humbled himself and grieved for an hour, till he changed into pity the horror and repugnance I had expressed at the idea of seeing him - and then he buried our child and forgot both his sorrow and his penitence.
Caroline Norton, English laws for women in the nineteenth century, London, 1854, pp. 32-55.
This book has been published on the Internet at A celebration of women writers.