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Duchess of Monmouth: The unbelievable true story behind Victoria’s most heartbreaking episode

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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In season three of Victoria, a lady in waiting called Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth has an affair with a footman, knowledge of which is used against her by her husband. This is the true story behind that devastating plotline.

The beating romantic heart of season three of Victoria isn’t the eponymous queen but her Mistress of the Robes. Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth (Lily Travers) is one of Queen Victoria’s (Jenna Coleman) new ladies in waiting, and though she is a fictional character, she carries the series’ most emotional storyline.

Throughout the season, Sophie becomes embroiled in an affair with a footman. Sophie’s husband is an abusive man whose control over his wife is terrifying, and her affair with Joseph is, in many ways, an act of rebellion as well as an act of love. Here, Sophie is allowed to do and say and feel the things that she is denied in her marriage.

For fans of a period drama or those concerned with women’s stories, this is an all-too-familiar story. The annals of history are littered with tales of women for whom marriage was a prison. But the decision of Victoria’s creators to focus on the particular story of the Duchess of Monmouth was inspired by a real-life woman, whose own experience is even more heartbreaking than Sophie’s.

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According to Travers, the character of Sophie was based on Caroline Norton, who was married to George Norton in 1827. 

Theirs was not a happy union, with George – a lawyer and politician – prone to jealousy. Caroline, on the other hand, was popular and gregarious, with a social circle that included Mary Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli and Fanny Kemble. She wrote books and poems, earning money for herself and for her three sons.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Finally, in 1836, she left her husband and the marriage broke down completely. Because of her successful career as a writer, she was able to care for her children. But George wanted a slice of Caroline’s money for himself and took her to court for it, claiming that as her husband he was entitled to everything she owned. He prevented her from seeing their children, and accused her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne, then the Prime Minister, all of which became weapons in his arsenal to prevent her from having access to her children.

What did Caroline do? She protested against her husband’s behaviour, campaigning for a change to the English law that said children were the property of their father and not their mother. Through her writing and by personally petitioning Queen Victoria, Caroline pleaded her case.

“An English wife may not leave her husband’s house,” she wrote to parliament in 1855. “Not only can he sue her for restitution of ‘conjugal rights’, but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge… and carry her away by force.” 

Caroline Norton

Caroline’s letter continued: “Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of [my] new home intolerable as the anguish of death… what I suffered respecting those children, God knows… under the evil law which suffered any man, for vengeance or for interest, to take baby children from the mother.”

It was because of Caroline’s protests, writings and petitions that vital changes to divorce and custody laws were passed in the mid-1800s. In 1839, the Custody of Infants Act was passed, which overruled the idea that parental rights over children of divorce would ultimately fall to the father. Then, in 1857, came the Matrimonial Causes Act, which allowed for a civil court to regulate on divorce. Finally, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 gave women the right to being their own legal entity and ruled that her wages and property were her own and not the domain of her husband’s.

These were all vital pieces of legal reform that gave women in the UK many of the rights that had previously been denied them. And without Caroline Norton, they might not have happened when they did.

Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth and Queen Victoria in Victoria

In Victoria, Sophie suffers a similar fate to Caroline. Her affair with Joseph leaves her exposed to her husband’s cruelty, and he threatens to use it against her.

“In those days, the woman was really owned by her husband,” Travers said to Town & Country. “When a woman got married, she became part of her husband’s property, as did all her money as did their children. So women really had no rights or any power once they were in a marital relationship.” 

Though Caroline made great gains for women’s rights, it’s important to note that the battle for equality was nowhere near complete. Caroline herself wasn’t even a feminist: she said as much in her letter to Queen Victoria asking for more parental rights. “The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! … I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality,” she wrote.

But what Caroline did for herself, and other women like her, was push to change outdated laws and speak up for the vital rights of women and mothers. 

Images: Getty, ITV

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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