Introduction

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Caroline Norton, née Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan (1808-1877), was a renowned beauty, fashionable salon hostess, recognised poet and novelist, and above all, a successful polemicist who contributed to the reform of unjust laws concerning married women in Victorian Britain. Her circle of friends included William Makepeace Thackeray, Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Edward Trelawny, as well as the actress Fanny Kemble, and politicians, including Lord Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli, and last but not least, Queen Victoria's uncle, the future King Leopold I of Belgium. Today she is mostly remembered as an involuntary protagonist and victim of one of the biggest sex scandals of the Victorian era and a passionate campaigner for women's rights.

Childhood and Youth

Caroline was born on 22 March 1808 in London as the third child of Thomas (Tom) Sheridan (1775-1817), the son of the famous Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), and Caroline Henrietta Callander (1779-1851), the daughter of a landed gentleman in Scotland and a famous society beauty with literary interests. Like his beautiful mother Elizabeth Sheridan, nicknamed Nightingale, Tom Sheridan died of tuberculosis in 1817, leaving his wife with four sons, three daughters, and a very modest pension. The poor widow was offered a “grace and favour” apartment at Hampton Court Palace because of the friendship of the Duke of York with Tom's father, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

The young Caroline was intellectually precocious, witty and beautiful. She had olive complexion, dark burning eyes, dark hair, and resembled a southern European beauty. At the age of eleven she displayed her literary skills when she wrote, together with her sister Helen, and later published The Dandies' Rout, a pastiche on the popular series of ‘Dandy’ books. In 1823, Caroline, aged fifteen, was sent to a small boarding-school at Shalford, Surrey. One day the schoolgirls were invited to visit Wonersh Park, the seat of the local landowner, Lord Grantley, whose younger brother George Chapple Norton (1800-1875), a shiftless barrister, caught sight of beautiful Caroline and became infatuated with her. He expressed his intention to marry Caroline, but was told that he must wait three years until Caroline reached the age of maturity. Caroline stayed in the school for two years and returned home in 1825.

The Sheridan Graces

When Mrs Sheridan's daughters reached a marriageable age, she decided to introduce them to London society where they were immediately called the Three Graces on account of their exceptional beauty. The eldest daughter, Helen (1807-1867) quickly married Captain Price Blackwood and became Lady Dufferin and Claneboye, afterwards Countess of Gifford. Later she became a popular songwriter and composer. The youngest sister, Jane Georgiana (1809-1884), considered the most beautiful of the three, married lord Edward Seymour, and became Lady Seymour and afterwards the Duchess of Somerset. In 1839, she was chosen the “Queen of Beauty” at the Eglinton Tournament, a famous re-enactment of a medieval joust and revel which was attended by thousands of participants. In her Record of Girlhood, Fanny Kemble (1809-1893), a famous actress and memoirist, gives the following description of the Sheridan family:

... the mother of the Graces was there, more beautiful than anybody but her daughters; Lady Grahame, their beautiful aunt; Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Blackwood (Lady Dufferin), Georgiana Sheridan – (Duchess of Somerset and queen of beauty by universal consent), and Charles Sheridan, their younger brother, a sort of younger brother of the Apollo Belvidere. Certainly I never saw such a bunch of beautiful creatures all growing on one stem. I remarked it to Mrs. Norton, who looked complacently round her tiny drawing-room and said, “Yes, we are rather good-looking people.” [148]

Caroline was perhaps not as beautiful as her younger sister, but she became popular in London salons and soon gathered a multitude of admirers. Her portraits were painted by such artists as George Hayter (1792-1871), Frank Stone (1800-1859), Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) and William Etty (1787-1849).

Disastrous Marriage

At age nineteen Caroline was pushed to marriage with George Chapple Norton, the barrister she had met in Surrey. A year earlier he had been elected member of Parliament for Guildford and hoped to make a political career as a Tory. The marriage, which took place on 30 July 1827 at St George's, Hanover Square in London, proved to be mismatched from start due to Caroline's independent spirit, wit and intellectual aspirations, and her husband's frequent outbursts of violence, meanness, dullness and envy.

She, gifted, impetuous, stormy-tempered, with a reckless, specious tongue, with an instinct for taking the lead and getting possession of everything around her: magnanimous and generous, incapable of hoarding injuries and paying back old scores when once the first ungovernable outburst of resentment against them had subsided; and he that dangerous mixture which is often found in dull natures, weak but excessively obstinate and suspicious when he thought he was being led, narrow-spirited, intolerant, slow-witted, yet not silent; rather with a certain power of nagging comment for everything about him that he was least able to understand; not without surface kindness and humanity, fond of children and animals, but coarse natured and self-indulgent, with a capacity for cruelty and brutality and slow revenge, when once convinced he had been aggrieved, so unlike any quality possessed by his wife that it seemed to confuse and stun her like a blow when she found herself opposed to it. [Perkins 14]

George Norton grew increasingly frustrated and resentful because he could not support his wife in the lifestyle she was accustomed to. He reproached her that she had not brought him a dowry, and he was a man of small fortune.

Many of the quarrels which embittered their marriage arose from his mean reminders that she had brought him nothing but her person, and was therefore bound to give more and expect less than a wife with a better dower. [Perkins 21]

When her indolent husband could not earn a decent living, Caroline began to publish her literary works in order to support herself and her first son. In 1829, she published The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems (1829), containing a long narrative poem about the tragic downfall of a seduced and abandoned woman. The book received a very favourable review in Blackwood's Magazine and encouraged Caroline to pursue the career of a writer. When in 1830, George Norton lost his seat in Parliament, he asked his wife, who had already become a renowned beauty hostess and a woman of fashion, to use her connections to advance his career. Thanks to Caroline's close acquaintance with the Whig Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, George Norton secured a well-paid job as a London metropolitan police magistrate. At that time Caroline continued to be engrossed in her literary work. In 1831, she became editor of La Belle Assemblée and Court Magazine, a popular monthly women's magazine. She was also editor of the English Annual for 1834. The Nortons, who had a home at Storey’s Gate, Birdcage Walk, began to entertain important guests, both literati and politicians, and Caroline's circle of admirers grew steadily.

The relationship between the spouses did not improve, even after the children were born. Caroline had three sons with George Norton: Fletcher (b. 1829), Brinsley (b. 1831) and William (b. 1833). In 1835, when she was pregnant with the fourth child, she was beaten so badly by her husband that she miscarried. Then she ran away from home to her mother, trying to obtain legal separation and custody over her sons, but soon she realised that she had no legal rights to her children. A married woman had no legal existence according to English law. A husband and a wife were treated by law as one person, and a wife lived under her husband's protection or cover, known as coverture. It was then that Caroline began to realise that English matrimonial laws granted more rights to men than women in marriage and started her long campaign to reform the judicial system. She wrote a number of polemical pamphlets which were instrumental in passing the Infant Custody Act through Parliament in 1839, and the first Divorce Act in 1857.

Criminal Conversation and Public Infamy

In 1836, Caroline Norton became entangled in one of the most scandalous lawsuits in the Victorian era. Norton accused his wife and Lord Melbourne, then the Whig Prime Minister, of “criminal conversation,” a legal term which referred to the crime of adultery. Charles Dickens, who covered the trial as a reporter, used it as an inspiration to caricature the absurd law action for breach of promise of marriage in The Pickwick Papers. In English common law, until 1857, a husband could claim damages from the adulterer. Norton demanded an enormous sum of money – £10,000 (almost £1 million today) as compensation for damages. He took possession of all property left by Caroline at home, including her jewelry and clothes. He even tried to confiscate Caroline's earnings as a writer arguing in court that they were legally his and suspended paying her a maintenance allowance. In return, Caroline refused to pay her bills and told creditors that her husband was obliged by law to pay all her debts.

There is no strong evidence that Caroline and Lord Melbourne were lovers. They had certainly a close relationship because Melbourne used to spend long hours with Caroline in her London home and they wrote many letters to each other. According to George Norton, who produced two witnesses, his servants, the criminal conversation of his wife took place with Lord Melbourne in her parlour. The case against Lord Melbourne was so trivial and the testimony was so unconvincing that it looked like a political provocation. Melbourne's political enemies might have persuaded Norton, who was a dedicated Tory, to make the accusation in order to prevent him from becoming prime minister when the princess Victoria was to succeed William IV. After a short trial the jury made a verdict of acquittal, but although George Norton lost the trial, Caroline's reputation was severely damaged for years. She was evicted from her home with only her personal belongings and denied the right to visit her sons due to her husband's legal trickery.

“Female Byron”

Caroline Norton inherited a literary talent from her mother and she took to pen at very young age. When she was eleven, she wrote, together with her sister Helen, a 16-page satire, The Dandies' Rout, which was published by J. Marshall in London in c. 1820.

Caroline Norton thought of herself primarily as a poet. She published four volumes of verses which reflected her intense Romantic imagination and traumatic personal experience. Her poetry appeared in numerous anthologies during the nineteenth century. Her first collections of poems, The Sorrows of Rosalie, was published in 1829, two years after her unhappy marriage began. In 1830, she published her second volume of poetry, The Undying One, which received favourable reviews.

After separation from her husband, Caroline Norton became a well-known literary figure. She continued to write poems, novels, plays, literary criticism and polemical pamphlets. She was also editor of fashionable women's magazines and gift annuals. Her Voice from the Factories (1836), a social document in verse, was a rousing condemnation of child labour. After the publications of The Dream and Other Poems (1840), Caroline Norton earned the title of “the Byron of our modern poetesses” from Henry Nelson Coleridge, the eldest son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the June-September issue of the Quarterly Review in 1840.

This lady is the Byron of our modern poetesses. She has very much of that intense personal passion by which Byron's poetry grasps and deeper communion with man and nature of Wordsworth. She has also Byron's beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression. (...) The last three or four years have made Mrs. Norton a greater writer than she was; she is deeper, plainer, truer. [376]

Like her mother, Caroline also wrote prose fiction. First, she published two novellas, The Wife and Woman's Reward (1835), and a collection of short fiction, The Coquette and Other Tales and Sketches, in Prose and Verse (1835). Later in her life she wrote three novels, Stuart of Dunleath (1851), Lost and Saved (1863), and Old Sir Douglas (1867). Her fiction contained a critique of social codes showing mismatched marriages, domestic violence, wronged and misunderstood female protagonists. Although initially she did not intend to be a reformist, her writings, and particularly polemical pamphlets, contributed significantly to changes in English law and inspired a number of women to continue her struggle for women's rights. As Kieran Dolin has observed, “Writing was a major resource in her reformism, and her marital history channeled and dominated her professional life as a writer.” (503) Norton's poetry and novels, which were very popular in the nineteenth century, are almost forgotten today.

Polemical Pamphlets

Wronged by her husband and humiliated by the press, Caroline Norton started her campaign to change unjust marriage, divorce, custody and property laws in England. She became “a pioneer among women writers on law” (Dolin 51). She wrote letters to influential newspapers and members of Parliament. In 1837, she published for private circulation her first important polemical pamphlet, Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father. In the next year, she published her second polemical pamphlet, Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered to reform the law on the custody of children. She pointed out that a wife had no legal identity apart from her husband, and therefore, her claims for custody could not be heard by courts.

The custody of legitimate children, is held to be the right of the Father from the hour of their birth: to the utter exclusion of the Mother, whose separate claim has no legal existence, and is not recognised by the Courts. [1]

Marriage denied women a separate legal existence. A father had the absolute and exclusive right to his children who were at his sole disposal.

The Father's right is absolute and paramount, and can no more be affected by the mother's claim, than if she had no existence. [3]

Caroline Norton lobbied several members of Parliament, including Thomas Talfourd, MP, to introduce a Bill to give non-adulterous mothers the right to appeal to the court of Chancery for custody of children under seven years of age. Early in 1839, she wrote another polemical pamphlet A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill, copies of which were sent to all members of Parliament. It was Caroline Norton's great victory that the bill was successfully passed in both Houses and became law in August 1839, giving married mothers, who were not guilty of adultery, the right of custody of their children under seven, and access to children under sixteen. Paradoxically, Caroline, could not benefit from this law because George Norton, who knew well legal tricks, had abducted his sons and hid them with relatives in Scotland, where English laws were not applicable.

In 1854, Caroline Norton campaigned for the reform of divorce and property laws in her pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century . As a motto she put Charles Dickens's words from Bleak House: “It won't do to have TRUTH and JUSTICE on our side; We must have LAW and LAWYERS.” Caroline Norton described acts of violence which her husband committed on her from the very beginning of their marriage.

After our honeymoon, we lived for a short time in chambers Mr Norton had occupied as a bachelor, in Garden Court, Temple; and, on the first occasion of dispute, after some high and violent words, he flung the ink-stand, and most of the lawbooks, which might have served a better purpose, at the head of his bride. We had no servants there, but an old woman, who had taken care of these chambers for some years, and who offered me the acceptable consolation, that her master was not “sober,” and would regret it “by-and-bye.” After this happy beginning, I accompanied my husband to Scotland. We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion he had expressed; I said (very uncivilly), that “I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion.” This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for many days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment. [32]

In 1855, when Parliament debated the divorce reform, Caroline Norton published A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage & Divorce Bill, her most important polemical pamphlet concerning the inferior status of women in English law. She revealed the shocking anomalies concerning the rights of married women.

A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation of desertion cannot alter this position. Unless divorced by special enactment in the House of Lords, the legal fiction holds her to be “one” with her husband, even though she may never see or hear of him. [...] An English wife has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases, even though they be the gifts of relatives or friends, or bought before marriage. An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit; she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter: the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid. An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labour, or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes, or keep a school, her salary is the husband's; and he could compel a second payment, and treat the first as void, if paid to the wife without his sanction. An English wife may not leave her husband's house. 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 who may “harbour her,” as it is termed, and carry her away by force, with or without the aid of the police. If the wife sue for separation for cruelty, it must be “cruelty that endangers life or limb,” and if she has once forgiven, or, in legal phrase, “condoned” his offences, she cannot plead them; though her past forgiveness only proves that she endured as long as endurance was possible.If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself. She has no means of proving the falsehood of his allegations. She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for “damages.” [8-10]

Caroline Norton's polemical pamphlets on marriage, divorce and custody, and the dreadful acts of violence and revenge committed on her by her husband, roused the public opinion and eventually contributed to the reform of the discriminatory Victorian laws against women and improved their legal position in society.

Later Years and Death

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In her later life, Caroline Norton continued to run a political and literary salon which was frequented by literati and Whig politicians. However, she never joined nor supported the first English feminist group, known as the Ladies of Langham Place, including Barbara Leigh Smith, Bessie Rayner Parkes and Anna Jameson, who focused on women's issues, such as education, employment and marital law. Her health gradually deteriorated, and she was saddened by the deaths of her sister Helen, in 1867, and friends. She was particularly devastated by the early death from tuberculosis of her eldest son Fletcher in Paris in 1859. When in 1875 her husband George Norton died, Caroline was legally able to remarry. Two years later she married Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a historical writer and politician, with whom she had been good friends for nearly 25 years. Unlike her first husband, Sir William offered her love, security and comfort. However, in early summer, she fell ill and died on 15 June 1877, at her London home. She was buried in the Stirling Maxwell vault at Lecropt church, near Keir. Brinsley Norton, who was an invalid, dependent on his mother's financial assistance, died in Capri at age 45 a few weeks after his mother. Sir William Stirling-Maxwell outlived his wife only seven months. He died in Venice on 15 January 1878, on his way home from Capri.

Caroline Norton as a Source of Literary Allusion

Caroline Norton's turbulent life became a source of literary allusion in the works of several Victorian writers, including Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens and George Meredith. For example, young Caroline Norton was a literary model for Alfred Tennyson's Princess Ida in his long poem, The Princess (1847). Charles Dickens parodied the Melbourne trial in The Pickwick Papers, in the chapter devoted to the Bardell v. Pickwick trial for breach of promise of marriage. Also Benjamin Disraeli based the character of Berengaria Montford in his last novel Endymion (1880) on Caroline Norton. George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways (1885), which recounts the story of an intelligent and beautiful woman trapped in a destructive marriage, was inspired by the tragic life of Caroline Norton.

Conclusion

Viewed by her contemporaries as an accomplished poet, writer and a society beauty, Caroline Norton is now mostly remembered for her successful struggle to reform the unjust Victorian laws related to women. She challenged patriarchal relations in Victorian society and male hegemony in marriage which disallowed divorced or separated women to retain property and have custody of their children. Estranged from her abusive husband, she wrote important polemical pamphlets which influenced the child custody laws, divorce laws and married women's property laws, which allowed separated wives to keep their earnings and bring up their children. Her strong social conscience helped her contribute to the amelioration of the inferior position of women in Victorian Britain. Her poems and novels, now largely forgotten, were read avidly by Victorian women who sympathised with her maltreated heroines. Victorian feminists, like Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and Frances Power Cobbe, supported and continued Caroline Norton's campaign in the areas of spousal abuse, child custody, matrimonial property, and divorce.

References and Further Reading

Acland, Alice. Caroline Norton. London: Constable,1948.

Atkinson, Diane. The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton. Random House, 2012.

Bruce, Leslie Jeanine. "Outlaw Mothers: Marital Conflict, Family Law, and Women's Novels in Victorian England." University of Southern California Ph. D. dissertation. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2007.

Chedzoy, Alan. A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Carolyn Norton. London: Allison and Busby, 1992.

Craig, Randall. The Narratives of Caroline Norton. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Denlinger, Elizabeth Campbell. Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Dolin, Kieran. "The Transfigurations of Caroline Norton," Victorian Literature and Culture, 30, 2 (2002) 503-527.

Forster, Margaret. Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Hodge, James O., and Jane Marcus, eds. Selected Writings of Caroline Norton. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1978.

Hodge, James O. and C. Olney. The Letters of Caroline Norton to Lord Melbourne. 1974.

Holcombe, Lee. Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Women’s Property Law in Nineteenth-Century England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.

Kemble, Frances Ann. Records of a Girlhood. Teddington, Middlesex: Echo Library, 2008.

Norton, Caroline. The Wife and Woman’s Reward. London: Saunders and Otley, 1835.

___. The Separation of Mother and Child By the Law of 'Custody of Infants', Considered. London: Roake and Varty,1838.

___. A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill by Pearce Stevenson, Esq. (pseudonym). London: James Ridgway, 1839.

___. The Dream And Other Poems. London: Henry Colburn, 1840.

___. Letters to the Mob, by Libertas (pseudonym.). London: Thomas Bosworth, 1848.

___. Remarks Upon the Law of Marriage and Divorce, Suggested by the Hon Mrs Norton’s Letter to The Queen. London: James Ridgway, 1856.

___. English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century. London: Weiltheimee and CO., 1854.

___. A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill. London: Longman, Brown Green and Longmans, 1855.

Perkins, Jane Grey. The Life of Mrs. Norton. London: John Murray,1909.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. London: Virago,1988.

Reynolds, K. D. “Caroline Norton” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-12.

The Quarterly Review. Vol. XLVI, London: John Murray, 1840.


Victorian Web Overview T. B. Macaulay

Last modified 1 February 2013