Caroline dried the tears from her eyes, careful to avoid the black and blue bruises that now adorned her cheeks like dimples.
She turned away from the mirror and made her way to her children’s playroom. Pain shot through her side as she limped down the hall.
At times like these, her three children were the only thing that kept her going…
About a decade earlier, when she was only 16, Caroline had been married to George, a member of parliament.
As were most marriages at the time, it was a tactical union — one that was meant to ease her family’s poor financial situation. She knew it would help her mother, so she agreed to it without a fuss.
But George turned out to be a monster of a man who beat her regularly.
Caroline kept her distance from George and found comfort in writing. Her talent was quickly recognized and she was appointed editor of ‘La Belle Assemblée’ and ‘Court Magazine’. She began to gain her own financial independence.
Year after year passed in the terrible marriage, and soon it wasn’t just herself that Caroline had to worry for. She had three beautiful children that she cared for deeply. She wanted to take her family and leave George, but she knew that wasn’t possible. The year was 1836 and at this time, women who were divorced or separated received zero custody over their children…
Love, Marriage and Common Misconceptions About Divorce
Dr. Danielle Teller, author of All the Ever Afters and Sacred Cows, joins us to discuss love and relationships. Dr. Teller shares her thoughts about marriage, societal misconceptions around divorce, and her inspirations behind writing her two books.
“Culture gives us touchstones that we can all relate to. It’s really important to have certain assumptions and not have to start every day from scratch.”
The Story (continued)
…George began to sense that he was losing control of his family. So he became obsessed with destroying Caroline and taking the children for himself.
He brought Caroline to court and accused her of having an affair with the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. Although the allegations were proven false, Caroline’s reputation was ruined and she lost custody of her children.
Caroline had had enough.
The injustice of it all sickened her. How could this violent, prideful, joke of a man, take her children from her? How could laws possibly exist that allowed this?
She took her skills as a writer and put her thoughts and protests to paper. Her campaigns were instrumental in the passing of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839–3 years after she had been separated from her children. The bill allowed mothers primary custody of their children under seven.
At this point, Caroline should have been awarded guardianship of her children, but George was spiteful as ever. The bill only held jurisdiction in England and Wales, so he sent the three children to boarding school in Scotland.
He didn’t allow Caroline to visit until a year later when their 8-year old son fell off a horse. The injury was minor, but it was left untreated and a vicious infection seized him. George sent word to Caroline, but by the time she arrived, their son had passed.
Unfortunately, it took a tragedy of this magnitude to shake George half-awake. He allowed the other two children to return and live with their mother, but under strict conditions. She was never to have a relationship with another man and he could take the children back at any time.
Caroline lived in constant fear that he would return and take the children, so she never stopped protesting the laws.
Subsequent campaigns allowed mothers even more rights and contributed to the passing of the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857. This lowered the cost of divorce and gave women the right to divorce a man if certain conditions were satisfied. Although this was far from equal treatment for men and women, it was a step in the right direction.
Caroline was… Caroline Norton. She was an author, editor, legal reformer, and hero to many women across England.
Although Caroline never lived to see the laws meet the standard of equality that she envisioned, she set in a motion a movement that gave women the courage to speak up and fight for the rights they deserved.
Luckily for us, we live in a society that now accepts and allows all kinds of relationships. But even still, there are many misconceptions about ‘real love’ and stigmas about divorce.
“Some of our cultural beliefs about marriage and divorce are quite sensible, but as you will soon realize, some don’t make much sense at all.”