Westminster, London, 22 June 1836. It is a fine, fresh morning that will become hot as the day progresses. Crowds are gathering at the Court of Common Pleas.
On trial is Caroline Sheridan, a beautiful and clever young woman who had been manoeuvred into marrying the Honourable 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, Norton accuses Caroline and the Prime Minister of a 'criminal conversation' (adultery) precipitating 'the scandal of the century'. In Westminster Hall that day is a young Charles Dickens, who would, just a few months later, fictionalise the event 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. Norton is a laughing stock. 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.
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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The liberating life story of the first feminist legislator - Kathy Lette
Diane Atkinson has written the definitive account of one of the most important trials of the nineteenth century - that of Caroline Norton's fight to keep her children. The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton is an important and necessary book. It also happens to be beautifully written and extremely entertaining. Diane Atkinson has resurrected a nineteenth century heroine in the twentieth-first century. - Amanda Foreman
Caroline Norton took her fight to see her children to the highest court in the land and changed the lot of mothers for ever. Diane Atkinson tells her story with a clarity and wit that makes it a pleasure to read. - Joan Bakewell
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
Diane Atkinson’s captivating fifth book...pacy book that’s as bright and fascinating as its heroine. - Independent on Sunday
Thrillingly readable biography (5 Stars) - Mail on Sunday
Atkinson’s meticulous research shines when she describes the impossible position of women like Caroline. - Express
It is a brave book, written with verve and veracity. - The Times
Diane Atkinson was born in the North-East and educated in Cornwall and London, where she completed a PhD on the politics of women's sweated labour. At the Museum of London she worked as a lecturer and curator specializing in women's history. She has an MA from the University of East Anglia in Life-writing. She is the author of Suffragettes in Pictures,Funny Girls: Cartooning for Equality, Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, and Elsie and Mairi Go To War, published in 2009.