There’s a lot to love about writing historical fiction. For starters, it’s a form of time travel. You get to go to new places and meet fascinating new people. You are also required to wrap your head around a lot of new ideas.
When I started thinking about my second Rosalind Thorne mystery, I knew I wanted it to center around adultery and “criminal conversation.” I thought I understood these ideas. I’d read a lot about the Regency. And well, wasn’t “criminal conversation,” or “crim. con.” just the polite phrase that the journalists of the time used?
As it turns out, no. Criminal Conversation is it’s own concept, and directly related to the idea of a wife being legally inseparable from her husband. In 1817, when A Purely Private Matter takes place, once a woman took marriage vows, she became legally, if not literally, flesh of his flesh. She couldn’t sign any contract, couldn’t hire any employee, take out a lease, appear in court as a witness on her own behalf, or anybody else’s, without his permission. This was because she was, legally, a limb of her husband’s body. Anything she did, he was doing, so he had to agree, and authorize it.
So, if you’re looking at things from this standpoint, if a wife has sex with somebody other than her husband, it becomes a little…weird.
First off, the outside sexual act becomes an assault on him, because he didn’t consent to the intercourse.
Ahem. Yes. Moving along.
But the intercourse also becomes theft. The other man stole something that belonged to the husband, that is, time and access to his wife. So, if the husband wanted legal recourse, what he did was sue the interloper in civil court for…wait for it…property damages. Not only that, but the wife was not only not expected to be in the court, she was not allowed to be there. This was not about her. This is about the husband, from whom something was stolen, and the (male) interloper, who stole it.
This meant that, among other things, accusations of criminal conversation could be used to drive a personal or business rival into bankruptcy, or just to blackmail him. Men could, and did, make spurious accusations about famous (and presumably wealthy) men when they were in need of ready money. Actors were a favorite target.
The person through whom I learned this was Mrs. Caroline Norton. Caroline’s big scandal was the way in which she publicly denied that she was scandalous, a position she maintained for decades. She held that her husband had no right to slander her, the courts had no business keeping her from declaring her innocence under oath, and that the very legal system was wrong to deny the fact that she was a thinking person with individual volition and interests. She took her case straight to the top, publishing an open letter to Queen Victoria herself.
She was, in short, my kind of gal.
Mrs. George Norton nee Caroline Sheridan, was not actually not a Regency figure. Her adult life, career and scandal stretched through that nameless time when England was ruled by “Silly Billy” William IV, and into the Victorian era. She was a successful author, lyricist, poet, sparkling hostess, popular party guest and habitué of fashionable literary circles.
Her husband, George Norton, was nowhere near as successful. Let’s be blunt. George was a failure. He had no money, no title or estate, and no occupation. He badgered Caroline to use her family connections to get him a position as a magistrate, which she did. He badgered her to make herself brilliant and famous so he could benefit from the reflected glory, which she did. He badgered her to write more and faster, because he needed the money. She did that too.
But none of that was enough. George continued to see himself as a failure, and he blamed Caroline. Blame eventually turned to suspicion. George was sure Caroline was having an affair, and he was sure he knew with whom — Lord Melbourne.
Yeah, well, okay there were a couple of indiscrete letters that might open themselves to misinterpretation if you were the kind of guy who was reading his wife’s mail…
What followed was sordid, drawn out, expensive and for Caroline, personally traumatic. George publicly labelled her an adulteress. He laid claim to all her earnings even while he booted her out of the house, and denied that he had any duty of spousal support (which was one of the very few points on which a wife could make a legal claim against her husband). He took (read: kidnapped) their children. And there was absolutely bugger all she could do about any of it, because he would not divorce her (remember, she’s a limb of his body, so she can’t amputate herself, he has to do it). So, Caroline remained legally his, so did all her stuff (seriously, she didn’t even have a legal right to the clothes on her back), all her money, and the kids.
So, Caroline did the only thing she could do. She wrote. She published political pamphlets describing her situation and that of women like her, including that open letter to Queen Victoria. And, when her husband did go to court, she went too. Which was unheard of. It was literally a one woman sit down strike. While the men were wrangling on who owed damages to who, Caroline positioned in the court where she could plainly be seen. More, she stood up and demanded to be heard. She had to be removed. More than once.
And she kept writing, in public and private, and arguing, and fighting. Even when she won on the personal front, finally obtaining from George a deed of separation that allowed her to keep her earnings and have custody of her children, she did not stop her campaign, but continued to argue for the rights of women.
Hmm. Maybe she was kind of scandalous at that.