If you’re anything like me, you love reading Jane Austen’s novels and find the stories of her heroines, like Elizabeth Bennet, sticking up for themselves and what they believe in highly appealing. But in creating female characters like this, Austen was actually highlighting the reality that in her era women had very few rights.
Well into the nineteenth century and a long while after Austen’s death, when a woman got married she essentially became the property of her husband. She was invisible in the eyes of the law and so it was very difficult for her to take legal action if a husband was abusive, or have proper control over any finances. This included any money she might make herself. A husband had full control over his wife’s income.
The husband had all the rights when it came to children as well. If a couple separated, the woman could expect to lose the right to see her children. This is exactly what happened to Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877). Caroline married George Norton in 1827. It was a very unhappy marriage. George was violent towards Caroline, jealous and possessive. He abused her both physically and mentally. Caroline struggled for years, but eventually the marriage fell apart and they were separated.
However, her troubles weren’t over. Caroline also lost the right to see her children, as George flatly refused to let her see them. She was separated from her three sons for years until after the youngest son died following a riding accident, due to negligence on the part of his father. Even then she was only allowed to visit her sons. George kept full custody of them and when she did visit, it was under supervision.
All of this led to Caroline tirelessly campaigning for many years for the rights of women, particularly married women. Her contribution was instrumental to a number of laws being passed, including the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act I857, which established secular divorce by court order, and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. All of these gave women rights that they hadn’t had before.
Another example of how the terribly unfair attitude towards women at that time affected their lives badly is Catherine Tylney-Long (1789 – 1825). Catherine had a tumultuous marriage to William Wesley-Pole that resulted in ruin and despair. After her father and brother both died, aged 16 Catherine became the wealthiest young heiress in the country. She had a fortune that in today’s money would be about £24 million ($33 million).
Her story reads like something out of a novel: beautiful young heiress falls for handsome cad and loses everything. William was probably the worst possible man Catherine could have chosen to marry. He was a prolific gambler, reckless, extravagant, refused to ever listen to anyone and ultimately made his wife utterly miserable. Once she married him, William could effectively do what he wanted with her money and she had no way of stopping him.
In barely ten years William had squandered Catherine’s vast fortune. The entire contents of her huge estate, Wanstead House in Essex, prized for its opulence, was sold off to pay off his debts and when that was not enough, the whole house was demolished and the timber and fabric, all that was left, sold off too. Even then, in the money of the day the house had cost around £360,000 to build and when gutted and demolished only raised £10,000. As for William and Catherine, they eventually separated. Catherine died, it’s said of a broken heart, in 1825. She was only 35.
Reading about the lack of rights for women in the UK in the nineteenth century certainly makes me value the rights that I usually take for granted much more! And Jane Austen herself was fully aware of the inequality that existed between men and women. This comes across loud and clear in her novels and is one of the reasons why she’s such an important author.
The era that Austen was writing in certainly wasn’t a good one for women, but it’s through the tireless campaigning of women like Caroline Norton that change was demanded, paving the way for modern women like me in the UK today to have equal rights with men.
Jane Austen’s World – https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/womens-legal-rights-in-the-19th-century/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Norton
The Haunted Palace (blog) – https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/the-tragic-life-of-catherine-tylney-long/