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


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...

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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 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.

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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.)
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 of 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.

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781613748800
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/1/2013
  • Edition description: First Edition, First US
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 440,564
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.80 (d)

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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