“Lopsided and Left-Handed Laws”: Narratives of Mothers and Wives

  • Randall Craig


Norton might have been excluded from the status of the political wife by virtue of her modest position in “the world,” but she did enjoy one privilege denied the Lady Hollands of her day: the possibility of overt political action independent of and in direct opposition to her husband. Two distinct causes provoked the “reluctant rebel” into exercising this independence: maternal custody and uxorial property.3 In both instances, Norton wrote in support of legislative reforms, abandoning the covert conversation of the hostess for the public pen of the pamphleteer. In the late 1830s she published several treatises: one anonymously, The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of “Custody of Infants,” Considered (1838), and another under the nom de guerre Pearce Stevenson, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill (1839).4 In the 1850s, she entered the debate on marriage and divorce laws, publishing two long essays under her own name: English Laws for Women (1854) and A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill (1855).


Married Woman Child Custody Legislative Reform Political Writing Legal Fiction 
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  1. 6.
    One reviewer praised the poem for what is, in effect, the essence of Norton’s philosophy and expression: “the writer’s catholic bredth of sympathy with all weakness and all misfortune, and at the same time the searching anatomy of… hard-hearted vice.” “The Child of the Islands,” The Quarterly Review 76:151 (June 1845), 8. One of the epigraphs in Mary Barton comes from the poem. For more on the relation of Norton and Gaskell, see Shirley Foster, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 75–77. Also seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Michael Young, “The Writer as Reader in Mary Barton,” Durham University Journal 67 (December 1974), 92–102.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Norton’s name was invoked in support of this position by Wendell Phillips at the Women’s Rights Convention of 1851. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, ed., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1, (New York: Arno and the New York Times, 1969), 228. It has been suggested that Norton’s stance is a pragmatic compromise. SeeGoogle Scholar
  4. Kathryn Caras, Public Complaint and Private Sorrow: The Feminism of Caroline Norton (Diss. Indiana University, 1984), 27, 45–46; and Stetson, A Woman’s Issue, 47–50.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Dorothy E. Zaborszky, “‘Domestic Anarchy and the Destruction of the Family’: Caroline Norton and the Custody of Infants Bill,” International Journal of Women’s Studies 7, no. 5 (November/December 1984), 397.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Joan Huddleston, “Introduction,” Caroline Norton’s Defense (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1982), ii. Margaret Forster writes: “Her particular brand of feminism began as naïve and romantic but ended as something much more daring and closer to the ideas of those ‘strong minded women’ she so abhorred.” Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1984), 16.Google Scholar
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    George Eliot, “Life and Opinions of Milton,” Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 156.Google Scholar
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    Eliot, for example, disapproved of Norton’s public feud with Ellen Wood. The Letters of George Eliot, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 5:208.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    Letter to John Murray, cited by Perkins, Mrs. Norton, 151. Also see Barbara Caine, English Feminism 1780–1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 93–102.Google Scholar
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    John Kilham, Tennyson and The Princess: Reflections of an Age (London: Athlone Press, 1958), 142–69. For more on Norton and Tennyson, see:Google Scholar
  12. Thomas Sadler, ed., Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (Boston: Fields, Osgood, and Co., 1869), 2:335;Google Scholar
  13. Lord Hallam Tennyson, ed., Tennyson and His Friends (London: Macmillan, 1911), 41; andGoogle Scholar
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  16. 41.
    Harriet Martineau, A History of Thirty Years Peace (London: 1878), 4:10.Google Scholar
  17. 42.
    Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1990), 623.Google Scholar
  18. 44.
    For a discussion of this principle as well as of the events leading to the Divorce Act of 1857, see Mary Lyndon Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  19. 47.
    Eliza Lynn Linton, “One of Our Legal Fictions,” Household Words 9 (April 1854), 260.Google Scholar
  20. 48.
    Arthur Arnold, The Hon. Mrs. Norton and Married Women (Manchester: A. Ireland, 1878), 3.Google Scholar

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© Randall Craig 2009

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  • Randall Craig

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