The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Victorian England's

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Victorian England's "Scandal of the Century" and the Fallen Socialite Who Changed Women's Lives Forever

by Diane Atkinson

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Westminster, London, June 22, 1836. Crowds are gathering at the Court of Common Pleas. On trial is Caroline Sheridan Norton, a beautiful and clever young woman who had been maneuvered into marrying the Honorable George Norton when she was just nineteen. Ten years older, he is a dull, violent, and controlling lawyer, but Caroline is determined not to be a


Westminster, London, June 22, 1836. Crowds are gathering at the Court of Common Pleas. On trial is Caroline Sheridan Norton, a beautiful and clever young woman who had been maneuvered into marrying the Honorable George Norton when she was just nineteen. Ten years older, he is a dull, violent, and controlling lawyer, but Caroline is determined not to be a traditional wife. By her early twenties, Caroline has become a respected poet and songwriter, clever mimic, and outrageous flirt. Her beauty and wit attract many male admirers, including the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. After years of simmering jealousy, George Norton accuses Caroline and the Prime Minister of “criminal conversation” (adultery) precipitating Victorian England’s “scandal of the century.”

 In Westminster Hall that day is a young Charles Dickens, who would, just a few months later, fictionalize events as Bardell v. Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers. After a trial lasting twelve hours, the jury’s not guilty verdict is immediate, unanimous, and sensational. George is a laughingstock. Angry and humiliated he cuts Caroline off, as was his right under the law, refuses to let her see their three sons, seizes her manuscripts and letters, her clothes and jewels, and leaves her destitute. Knowing she can not change her brutish husband’s mind, Caroline resolves to change the law.

 Steeped in archival research that draws on more than 1,500 of Caroline’s personal letters, The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton is the extraordinary story of one woman’s fight for the rights of women everywhere. For the next thirty years Caroline campaigned for women and battled male-dominated Victorian society, helping to write the Infant Custody Act (1839), and influenced the Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act (1857) and the Married Women’s Property Act (1870), which gave women a separate legal identity for the first time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the Queen’s English, “criminal conversation” meant adultery—a legal offense in Victorian England. Historian Atkinson (Elsie and Mairi Go to War) opens with an overview of the sensational 1836 London trial of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, sued by George Norton for supposedly engaging in an affair with the latter’s wife, Caroline. Melbourne pleaded not guilty, and the jury agreed. The verdict secured Melbourne’s reputation, but the charge alone ruined Caroline’s, and George’s failed case made him a fool. Atkinson then pulls back to tell the workmanlike story of Caroline’s life and of the dearth of legal protections available to married women. A noted beauty and talented singer and poet, at 19 Caroline wed the dull barrister. George drank and abused his wife, while she developed a relationship with Melbourne. In 1836, George took their three children away from Caroline, as was his legal right, and filed the infamous charge against Melbourne. After the verdict, Caroline worked tirelessly to pass the Infant Custody Bill, the Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act, and the Married Women’s Act, all of which greatly increased women’s legal rights. Caroline’s friend Charles Dickens fictionalized these events in The Pickwick Papers, and while Atkinson doesn’t hold a candle to Boz, this is still an engaging history. 23 b&w photos. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Atkinson's (The Suffragettes in Pictures; Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick; Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front) well-researched but somewhat dull history tells of the relatively unknown 19th-century British feminist Mrs. Caroline Norton. This scholarly work chronicles the scandalous 1836 trial in which George Norton, a barrister, accused Prime Minister Lord Melbourne of engaging in an affair with Mrs. Norton; it also covers the trial's aftermath, including its effect on the Nortons' marriage. Though Mrs. Norton was cleared of all charges, she and Mr. Norton battled in print and letters for the rest of their lives because British law didn't allow a mother to obtain a divorce easily, much less to keep her children, property, or money afterward. Mrs. Norton used her personal struggle to help change British statutes governing legal and property rights for women, both married and divorced. This book is incredibly detailed, thanks to Atkinson's use of personal correspondence between the Nortons and other figures, but, unfortunately, the story gets lost in the mounds of specifics. VERDICT Recommended for women's studies scholars, legal scholars, and academics.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI
Kirkus Reviews
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.
From the Publisher

"Lively, entertaining, and filled with rivetingly weird details. . . . Atkinson's book pays tribute to a neglected heroine." —Sunday Times

"Important and definitive, this beautifully written and extremely entertaining book resurrects a nineteenth-century heroine for the twenty-first century." –Amanda Foreman, author, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

“It is a brave book, written with verve and veracity.” —The Times

"Expertly researched and finely written. . . . Mrs Norton’s journey from abused wife to passionate reformer is as moving as it is fascinating, and Atkinson’s richly detailed work does her subject the justice she deserves." —BBC History Magazine

“An impressive biography" and "a robust portrait . . . of a woman who refused to be circumscribed by the restrictive social mores and legal inequities of her time and place in history.” —Booklist

“Well-researched” and “recommended for women’s studies scholars, legal scholars, and academics.” —Library Journal

“This beautifully written and fascinating book is a window to the times and an important addition to women's history.” —Book News, Inc.

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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton

Victorian England's "Scandal of the Century" and the Fallen Socialite who Changed Women's Lives Forever

By Diane Atkinson

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Diane Atkinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-880-0


Caroline Sheridan and George Norton

That is not a child I would care to meet in a dark wood!

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Well made, though not tall ... with a fine ruddy complexion.

Joan Gray Perkins

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was born in London on 22 March 1808 to the sound of coughing. Her father Thomas Sheridan was riddled with consumption, the 'white death'. The antique name for pulmonary tuberculosis was phthisis, in Greek 'to waste away', which describes the effect of the disease, which is a bacterial infection of the lungs and other organs and was the single biggest killer in nineteenth-century Britain. It killed Tom's beautiful mother, the singer Miss Eliza Linley, 'whose bewitching melody went straight to the heart', when Tom was seventeen. It was said at the time that the road from Hot Wells in Bristol, where she died aged thirty-seven, to Wells Cathedral, where she was buried sixteen miles away, was lined with mourners. Tom Sheridan died in his forties, leaving his thirty-seven-year-old widow with seven children aged from eleven to a babe in arms. Tuberculosis also blighted the lives of Caroline's two youngest brothers, Frank and Charlie, killing them in their thirties.

Caroline was the third child of a famously beautiful mother, also named Caroline. Her father was the eldest son of Richard Brinsley 'Sherry' Sheridan, who had eloped with Tom's mother and fought two duels over her. Tom inherited his mother's dark hair and good looks, playing the part of Regency buck with enthusiasm and success. Known as Dazzle, he was a talented comic actor and singer who wrote poetry and melodrama. Never a keen student, at Harrow school he had 'wit and humour but no knowledge' and was popular, 'the idol of the young men who pronounced him the cleverest man in the place'. Tom was allowed to run wild as a child, his father preoccupied and his mother's health delicate for years, bouts of tuberculosis followed by periods of remission were the rhythm of their family life. Eliza Sheridan was slowly dying and in no position to guide her irrepressible son when he needed the firmest of hands.

Tom's parents were estranged for much of his childhood. Although their relationship had begun as a romantic and passionate love affair followed by an elopement, his father's affections strayed the year Tom was born, when Sheridan started an affair with another great beauty of the day, Frances Anne Crewe. He then conceived a passion for Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Duncannon, which ended his marriage in all but name. Eliza was wounded by her husband's infidelities and what she called the 'duplicity of his conduct ... my heart is entirely alienated from him'. She had a fling with the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, who was infatuated with her brittle beauty, and in 1790 fell in love with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, an Irish nationalist and army officer nearly ten years younger than her. (In 1798 he would die in the struggle for Irish independence.) Their child Mary was born on 30 March 1792; three months later Eliza died of tuberculosis. Fitzgerald agreed that Tom's father should adopt the baby and bring her up as his own child, but Mary was delicate and died at seven months.

Three years later Richard Brinsley Sheridan, forty-three, married eighteen-year-old Hester Jane Ogle, known as Hecca, daughter of the dean of Winchester. She was as much of a handful as his own son, who was a year older than his new stepmother. George Canning, a close friend of Sheridan and undersecretary for foreign affairs, found Hecca 'wilder and more strange in her air, dress and manners than anything human, or at least anything female I ever saw'. In 1796 Charles Brinsley Sheridan was born, stepbrother to twenty-one-year-old Tom.

Running through Tom Sheridan's life were his eagerness to please and his need to entertain. Finding it almost impossible to be serious, he was happier inhabiting a comic character from one of his father's plays than being himself. When his father suggested to him that it was time he took a wife, he answered, 'Yes, sir, but whose?' Harriette Wilson, London's most famous courtesan, would not travel alone in a hackney carriage with Tom Sheridan in case he molested her.

Tom Sheridan's working life was spent in his father's shadow. Sometimes he performed on the stage, but mostly he managed his father's theatre in Drury Lane, nursing it from one financial crisis to another. In the first two years of the nineteenth century, showing how highly he regarded both father and son, King George III wrote several times to Richard Sheridan about how the precociously talented Tom's life seemed to be close to coming off the rails, and despairing that the father had instructed his son to refuse any help the King offered him: 'I am more anxious than I can express about Tom's welfare. It is indeed unfortunate that you have been obliged to refuse these things for him.' Eventually a position came up in the autumn of 1803 that did meet with the father's approval, and Tom was allowed to accept a commission in the Prince of Wales' own regiment, the 10th Light Dragoons, and became aide-de-camp to Lord Moira, army commander-in-chief in Scotland, for three years. Despite having friends in the highest of places – the Prince of Wales financed three of his attempts – Tom Sheridan was never elected a Member of Parliament, failing twice at Liskeard in 1802 and 1804 and twice at Stafford in 1806 and 1807.

Caroline Henrietta Callander was born in Dublin in 1779 and so was four years younger than Tom. She and her sisters were brought up by their aunts at Ardkinglas in Scotland. Fanny Kemble remarked that she was more beautiful than anybody but her own three daughters. Caroline, who was 'sensible, amicable and gentle', met Tom Sheridan in Edinburgh in 1805 while he was working for Lord Moira. Just as his father had eloped with his mother, Tom eloped with Caroline to Gretna Green, where they were married on Midsummer's Day 1805, and then more formally in London on 29 November at St George's Church, Hanover Square. When Caroline walked down that aisle she was four months pregnant with their son Richard Brinsley, who was born on 29 April 1806. Tom's father Sherry was enchanted by his new daughter-in-law, finding her 'lovely and engaging and interesting beyond measure'. However, the rumbustious Tom soon found his new bride's apparent perfection trying, insisting that 'her extreme quietness and tranquillity is a defect in her character' and accusing her 'of such an extreme apprehension of giving trouble ... as to be an absolute affectation'. Mocking her sweet nature in a letter to one of his fellow guests on their honeymoon at Inverary Castle he wrote, 'if she were to set her clothes on fire, she would step to the bell very quietly, and say to the servant, with great gentleness and composure "Pray William is there any water in the house?" "No Madam; but I can soon get some." "Oh dear, I dare say the fire will go out of itself."'

Caroline Sheridan was a poet and budding novelist, and the young Sheridans were often broke, frequently on the cadge, borrowing money, paying it back, taking out another loan straightaway. Despite settling the financial future of his younger son, Charles Brinsley, Sherry never secured Tom's financial future and even expected him to borrow money to bail his father out of a string of financial difficulties. Sherry's fondness for drink and gambling made money disappear. Caroline had to wait for her long -living rogue of a father (Sir Walter Scott called him 'a swindler of the first order') to die in 1831 before she received the inheritance her mother, Lady Elizabeth Macdonnell, had left her. In May 1806 the young Sheridans gave a gala for the christening of Richard Brinsley, whose godparents were the Prince of Wales and the Countess of Westmoreland. There was a 'sumptuous dinner for thirty-six persons' and in the evening a masque acted by the artistes of the Opera House and Drury Lane Theatre. The day ended with 'a ball and supper in a distinguished style of taste, elegance and variety'.

A year before Tom Sheridan married Caroline Callander he had had a dalliance with Mrs Elizabeth Campbell, the wife of a Jamaican plantation owner. The Campbells had moved to England in the mid-1790s because of Elizabeth's delicate health. Tom met the couple in Edinburgh in the autumn of 1803; they had been married for thirteen years when he arrived in their lives. Elizabeth Dunston had married Peter Campbell, ten years older than her, when she was sixteen and had three daughters, one of whom had died. A beauty and 'a woman of the greatest accomplishments', she was the same age as Tom and feeling restless in her marriage when she met Lord Moira's dashing new aide-de-camp. The rules about paying social calls were looser in Edinburgh than London, and Tom found he could visit the Campbells 'at all hours and at all times'.

The affair was discovered by the Campbells' housekeeper Mary Brotherton during the evening of 29 February 1804, two days after Peter Campbell had gone to London, when Tom Sheridan was found in her master's bedroom. Hearing all the commotion Mrs Campbell came out of her room and asked what was going on, and Mary, talking from a position of strength, told her mistress she was surprised that Mrs Campbell was asking her 'when she knew what she had done'. Mrs Campbell 'put out her hand and begged Mary Brotherton to be her friend'. The housekeeper acquiesced, but only 'in everything that was right, but never in anything that was wrong'. Elizabeth Campbell and Tom Sheridan were off the hook, but only for as long as Mary Brotherton kept quiet.

Not long after that illicit night of passion Tom met his future wife and they moved to London. In 1806 he had a brief spell as muster-master general for Ireland before his father gave him a quarter-share in Drury Lane Theatre and appointed him manager. While running Drury Lane and also managing the Lyceum, he and his father were also trying, and failing, to get Tom elected as an MP. Artistically, Tom's career was more successful: his poetry was praised and he was working on a 'grand ballet', which was performed the following year. How much Caroline knew about her husband's life before their elopement is unknown, but by the time his private life became public property in July 1807 – when Peter Campbell learned what had happened three years before, and sued Tom for criminal conversation with his wife with damages of fifteen hundred pounds – Caroline Sheridan had two children under two, Richard Brinsley and Helen Selina. Some time during the ensuing and embarrassing hearing she became pregnant with Caroline. Three babies in three years.

Tom Sheridan appeared in a contemporary cartoon as a young blade in uniform being threatened by a candlestick-wielding crone. He did not defend the case, although his lawyer John Curwood tried to get the damages reduced by reminding the jury 'he is a person having no fortune at all' whose father was well known 'in every corner of the country' and from whom he had inherited 'wit, genius and taste' but 'I fear, nothing more'. If the jury awarded the maximum damages his client would be ruined, 'immured in the walls of a prison and the country would lose the benefit of his talent'. Curwood accepted that Tom would have to pay something, but pleaded with the jury 'not to give way to those prejudices which naturally arise out of a case of this sort'. The lawyer did his best, but the jury awarded Peter Campbell the full amount for 'Trespass, Assault and Criminal Conversation.'

Tom and his father scrabbled around to pay the damages, borrowing money from actor chums and Sherry's agent Richard Peake. The loyal and long-suffering Peake received frantic scrawled notes from Tom begging him to advance money, presumably to keep his young family afloat: 'I am in town [London] again tomorrow night. Do not for God's sake forget me.' Tom tried gambling his way out of trouble. One night he was playing cards at Watier's Club in Piccadilly when his fellow masher Beau Brummell breezed in and came to his rescue. The dandy and diarist Thomas Raikes described how Brummell took Tom's place at the table, offering to share the winnings and adding two hundred pounds in counters to the ten pounds Tom was playing with. Brummell did brilliantly and in ten minutes won fifteen hundred pounds. He gave half the winnings to Tom and told him to 'go home and give your wife and brats supper and never play again'. Caroline Sheridan was to become another one of those 'brats'.

When she was born Caroline was 'a queer, dark-looking little baby' with lots of black hair. Her mother wrote to one of her brothers she was 'stout and strong and the prettiest infant I ever saw'. There was no lavish christening gala as there had been for her brother; money was still being borrowed to pay off the damages to keep her father out of prison. Every pound would have to be repaid within a specified time and with interest. But despite all the efforts made on his behalf and his own ingenuity in dodging those charged with seizing him and his goods in lieu of the debt, Tom was arrested on 3 June 1808 and sent to the Fleet Prison near Ludgate Hill. The conditions there were awful, 'crowded with women and children, being riotous and dirty', an alcohol-fuelled and disease -ridden environment.

Eventually bonds were drawn up, money was advanced, the lawyers' bills grew and Tom was released and could return to work, no longer in fear of Campbell's bailiffs. But the debt would hang over the Sheridans' heads for some time. And life got much harder for Tom and his family the day after a bill to dissolve the Campbells' marriage was debated by the House of Lords. On 24 February 1809 the Sheridan family's most important asset, Drury Lane Theatre, went up in smoke. The scenery caught fire and the whole place was reducing to a charred ruin, the flames lighting up the windows of the House of Commons 'as strongly as if it had been in the Speaker's garden'. When Sherry was told about the fire he was listening to a speech in the House and reacted to the news calmly, declining the offer that the sitting be adjourned. He left the Commons and sat in Drury Lane to watch his theatre burn down. When asked why he was taking it so well, he apparently replied, 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.' The loss was three hundred thousand pounds (now nineteen million pounds) and only forty thousand was insured. Sheridan and his dependants faced an uncertain financial future. Drury Lane Theatre was rebuilt in three years, but rows and financial muddles meant that Tom and his father were excluded from the management of the new building. Taking umbrage, which he often took, at what he felt was shabby treatment, Sherry refused to go and see his own son's work when it was performed in the new building in 1813.

Shortly after the fire Tom's wife became pregnant with their fourth child, Jane Georgiana, known as Georgy, who was born on 5 November 1809. Tom's health had been failing long before the theatre caught fire; he was consumptive and being 'blistered'. Generations of doctors insisted that blistering was a good treatment despite the agony it caused the debilitated patient. 'The successive application of blisters seems the best. In many cases it will provoke and maintain suppuration at the surface. The practice is undoubtedly painful; but when the local lesions are recent, large in size and threaten to remain in the acute condition, such treatment is more beneficial than any other.'

Blistering was one of a number of painfully pointless treatments that consumptive patients had to endure. Another was bleeding, a panacea for all kinds of illnesses, which dangerously weakened those already very ill with tuberculosis. Cupping, which was supposed to draw out the infection, was worse. A cut was made in the flesh over the suspected site – in Tom's case it would have been his chest or back – and a hot glass with a roughened edge was placed over the wound. As the glass cooled and contracted, blood and sometimes pus and other 'necrotic material' oozed out through the open wound. The theory was that the noxious cause of the illness would be drawn out and the patient cured.

During 1809 Tom and his pregnant wife sailed from Portsmouth to Spain on the battleship HMS Audacious to try to recover his health. Dry sunny climates were recommended for consumptives, and when they returned to England in September newspapers reported that Tom's health had considerably improved. He returned to running the Lyceum. The following year he went on his own to Sicily in search of the sun, but his condition worsened and there were fears he might die. When he returned in July 1810 The Times reported that he had 'not much benefited by his foreign excursions.' In his absence Tom's father and his wife Caroline, whom he had appointed to speak and act on his behalf, had successfully seen off an attempt by the Lord Mayor of London to build a theatre which could have threatened Drury Lane and Lyceum Theatres. This is Caroline Sheridan's mother taking on some of Tom's professional responsibilities in addition to her own domestic duties. Even with a couple of maids to help her run their home in South Audley Street, four children under the age of four represented a treadmill of daily chores.


Excerpted from The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton by Diane Atkinson. Copyright © 2013 Diane Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Meet the Author

Diane Atkinson holds a Ph.D. in the politics of women’s labor and has worked as a lecturer and curator specializing in women’s history at the Museum of London. She is the author of Elsie and Mairi Go to War, Funny Girls, Love and Dirt, and Suffragettes in Pictures.

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