Caroline Norton should have been a lawyer: she addressed the challenges of her unhappy life with a keen forensic mind and a command of rhetoric that a leading QC might have envied. Instead, born out of her time, she became the most reviled and notorious woman in England when her husband brought an action against the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for having ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife.
Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a married woman was a chattel, the property of her husband. She could not buy or sell property or sign a contract, and had no right to her own earnings. If she was unfaithful, a civil action for ‘crim con’ could be brought