[The following discussion of Caroline Norton's fiction comes from an 1897 book, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations, in which women writers discussed their predecessors. To the text, which comes from Project Gutenberg (see bibliography), I have added subtitles, changed the quotation marks around book titles to italics, and removed the breaks between several paragraphs. — George P. Landow.]
he produced, in 1829, "The Story of Rosalie, with other Poems," which seems to have been her first published work. This was well received and much admired. In 1830 "The Undying One," a poem on the Wandering Jew, was brought out, followed in 1840 by "The Dream and other Poems." This was highly praised in the Quarterly Review by Lockhart, who spoke of her as "the Byron of poetesses." Other poems from her pen touched on questions of social interest: "A Voice from the Factories" and "The Child of the Islands," a poem on the social condition of the English people. She also printed "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century," and published much of it in pamphlets on Lord Cranworth's Divorce Bill of this year (1853), thus assisting in the amelioration of the laws relating to the custody of children, and the protection of married women's earnings.
Her natural tendency was towards poetry, and the first five books published by her were all in verse. . . .It was . . . as a poetess that Mrs. Norton was chiefly known. Her verse was graceful and harmonious, but more emotional than intellectual. Wrath at injustice and cruelty stirred the depths of her soul; her heart was keenly alive to the social evils around her and she longed passionately for power to redress them. The effect of her own wrongs and sufferings was to quicken her ardour to help her fellow women smarting under English law as it at that time existed. . . .
Mrs. Norton's second poem of importance, "The Undying One," is founded on the legend of the Wandering Jew, a subject always attractive to the poetic imagination. It contains many charming lines, and touches on an immense variety of topics, wandering, like its hero, over many lands. The sufferings of isolation are vividly depicted, and isolation must, of necessity, be the curse of endless life in this world.
Thus, thus, to shrink from every outstretched hand,
To strive in secret and alone to stand,
Or, when obliged to mingle in the crowd,
Curb the pale lip which quiveringly obeys,
Gapes wide with sudden laughter, vainly loud,
Or writhes a faint, slow smile to meet their gaze.
This, this is hell! the soul which dares not show
The barbed sorrow which is rankling there,
Gives way at length beneath its weight of woe,
Withers unseen, and darkens to despair!
In these days of rapidity and concentration, poems such as this would never emerge from the manuscript stage, in which they might be read by appreciative friends with abundant leisure.
The same observation applies to "The Dream." A mother sits watching the slumber of her beautiful young daughter who, waking, tells her dream of an exquisite life with the one she loves best, unshadowed by grief or pain. The mother warns her that life will not be like this, and draws a somewhat formidable picture of its realities. From this the girl naturally shrinks, wondering where Good is to be found, and is answered thus:
He that deals blame, and yet forgets to praise,
Who sets brief storms against long summer days,
Hath a sick judgment.
And shall we all condemn, and all distrust,
Because some men are false and some unjust?
Some of Mrs. Norton's best and most impassioned verses are to be found in the dedication of this poem to her friend, the Duchess of Sutherland. Affection, gratitude, indignation, grief, regret—these are the sources of Mrs. Norton's inspiration; but of any coldly intellectual solution of life's puzzles, such as more modern writers affect, there is little trace.
"The Lady of La Garaye" is a Breton tale (a true one) of a beautiful and noble Châtelaine, on whom Heaven had showered all joy and blessing. Adored by her husband, she shared every hour of his life and accompanied him in his favourite sport of hunting. One day she dared to follow him over too wide a leap. Her horse fell with and on her. She was terribly injured, and crippled for life. After much lamenting she is comforted by a good priest, and institutes a hospital for incurables, she and her husband devoting themselves to good works for the remainder of their days. The versification is smooth, the descriptions are graceful and picturesque; but neither the subject nor its treatment is enthralling.
Mrs. Norton's finest poetic efforts are to be found in her short pieces. One entitled "Ataraxia" has a soothing charm, which owes half its melody to the undertone of sadness which pervades the verse.
Come forth! The sun hath flung on Thetis' breast
The glittering tresses of his golden hair;
All things are heavy with a noon-day rest,
And floating sea-birds cleave the stirless air.
Against the sky in outlines clear and rude
The cleft rocks stand, while sunbeams slant between
And lulling winds are murmuring through the wood
Which skirts the bright bay, with its fringe of green.
Come forth! all motion is so gentle now
It seems thy step alone should walk the earth,
Thy voice alone, the 'ever soft and low,'
Wake the far haunting echoes into birth.
Too wild would be Love's passionate store of hope,
Unmeet the influence of his changeful power,
Ours be companionship whose gentle scope
Hath charm enough for such a tranquil hour.
From the perusal of her writings, the impression given by her portrait, and the reminiscences of one who knew her, we gather an idea of this charming and gifted woman, whose nature seems to have been rich in all that makes for the happiness of others, and of herself. We feel that she possessed a mind abundantly stored, an imagination stimulated and informed by sojourning in many lands; a heart, originally tender and compassionate, mellowed by maternal love, a judgment trained and restrained by constant intercourse with the best minds of the period, a wit keen as a damascene blade, and a soul to feel, even to enthusiasm, the wrongs and sufferings of others.
Add to these gifts the power of swift expression, and we can imagine what a fascination Mrs. Norton must have possessed for those of her contemporaries who had the privilege of knowing her. "She was the most brilliant woman I ever met," said the late Charles Austen, "and her brilliancy was like summer lightning; it dazzled, but did not hurt." Unless, indeed, she was impelled to denounce some wrong or injustice, when her words could strike home. Yet to this lovely and lovable woman, life was a long disappointment; and through all she has written a strain of profound rebellion against the irony of fate colours her views, her delineations of character, her estimate of the social world. By her relations and friends she was warmly appreciated. . . .
It is a curious instance of the change of fashion and the transient nature of popular memory that great difficulty is experienced in obtaining copies of Mrs. Norton's works, especially of her poems. "The Undying One," "The Dream," and one or two smaller pieces, are found only in the British Museum Library. The novels are embedded in the deeper strata of Mudie's, but are not mentioned in the catalogue of that all-embracing collection. Yet forty years ago, Mrs. Norton acknowledged that she made at one time about £1400 a year by her pen, this chiefly by her contributions to the annuals of that time.
Mrs. Norton, however, had not to contend with the cruel competition which lowers prices while it increases labour. In her day, the workers were few, and the employers less difficult to please. But these comparisons are not only odious, but fruitless. The crowd, the competition, the desperate struggle for life, exists, increases, and we cannot alter it. We can but train for the contest as best we may, and say with the lovely and sorely tried subject of this sketch, as she writes in her poem to her absent boys:
"Though my lot be hard and lonely,
Yet I hope—I hope through all."
Last modified 11 July 2014