The Case of the Married Woman by Antonia Fraser – A Review

Caroline Norton (1860)

The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, I should start with a bit of a disclaimer. I am, I must confess, somewhat obsessed with Caroline Norton. I am also a fan of Antonia Fraser and her writing, as she sees the stories in history and focusses on telling those stories with a mesmerising mastery. So before I even opened the book, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. Fraser really brings Caroline to life, looking beyond the unhappiness and scandals that blighted her life, and the criticisms of her feminism that have muddied her legacy, to paint a portrait of the woman, the mother, and the activist that Caroline was.

Maintaining the interest of her reader, without bogging the book (and Caroline’s story) down with too much irrelevant detail, the book charts Caroline’s life from beginning to end, with all of the tragedy and triumph that came along with that. As it is Fraser, as I expected, the narrative is bolstered by her meticulous research, but she never lets the minutiae of that research get in the way of what is a cracking story. On the minus side, sometimes I wished there had been an additional footnote or two when I really wanted to know what her source material was.

The area that I had the most difficulty with is her coverage of the crim con trial that Caroline’s husband brought against Lord Melbourne. While Fraser was right to note that the history of the criminal conversation suit was a somewhat chequered one, the explanation that she offers of its relationship to divorce is not entirely correct. As I have previously mentioned in other reviews, divorce was not illegal prior to 1857, it was just largely inaccessible as the ability to pronounce a divorce was vested in parliament and not the courts. Illegality suggests that it is against the law. Divorce was not against the law – the law simply did not offer it as a remedy for those who wished to extricate themselves from their marriages. The criminal conversation suit was also, by convention, a necessary pre-requisite for those men wishing to obtain a divorce from Parliament. But this is a small niggle, picked up only because it falls within my area of knowledge.

The book is a useful addition to the biographies on Caroline that preceded this, with those of Perkins and Acland feeling somewhat outdated by comparison. I closed the book feeling that Fraser had done justice to Caroline and her legacy.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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