The major theme of Fraser’s book is rage – hers and Caroline’s – that women in those days had no rights over their children. In the eyes of the law, married women simply didn’t exist. “The female is by a law of nature put under the dominion of the male,” an assumption that had scriptural authority, as “superiority is not a thing of man’s devising, but of God’s”. Nor were women allowed to own anything, of any kind. Caroline’s grandfather’s pension and property, worth £40,000, which she’d inherited, “belonged legally to her husband,” who cut her allowance, giving her trouble at the bank.
Caroline’s ceaseless campaigning, her taste for publicity and her ambition (she once wrote to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel suggesting she be appointed the next poet laureate) did not generally endear her to people — even her sisters wished that she would stop making such a fuss. She was also not what we could call a feminist: she believed that women should be “protected” by men. Yet she made a difference, a big difference. There have been other books about Caroline Norton, but Fraser’s is the first to emphasise what a modern figure she is, portraying her not as a hapless victim but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to what can only be called the patriarchy — a “difficult” woman whose bloodymindedness improved the lot of other women. Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th-century heroine.