Caroline Norton - Reluctant Heroine

One of the great things about this blog is finding out about interesting women in history that one has never heard of before. One of these women is Caroline Norton. I first read about Caroline in the companion volume to a exhibition at the New York Public Library, and was intrigued. I came upon her story again in another book that I was reading recently. I was struck by her story simply because Caroline Norton was a reluctant heroine.

If her life hadn't been struck by adversity, she would probably have led the life of a contented Victorian maiden. While many of the women that have been featured on this blog defied the social mores of their times, Caroline found herself taking on the established laws that treated women as little better than livestock.

She was born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan on March 22, 1808. Her father Thomas Sheridan was an actor, soldier and government official. He was also the son of the great Richard Brinsley Sheridan who in his lifetime had been a playwright, author of School for Scandal and The Rivals which are still produced today, theater manager of Drury Lane, and member of Parliament hobnobbing with the Prince Regent and the Devonshire House set before spending his final days in poverty and squalor, ruined by alcoholism and debt. He was so famous for his wit that Byron chose Sheridan as his role model.

In 1817, when she was 9, Caroline's father died in South Africa, leaving her mother to find a way to support 7 children (the Sheridan clan consisted of Caroline, two sisters, and four brothers) with only a minor government pension which her mother supplemented by writing novels for hire. Fortunately, the family was given a grace and favor apartment in Hampton Court Palace, because of the friendship of Richard Brinsley Sheridan with the Duke of York.

Caroline, and her two sisters Helen, and Georgina were so beautiful that they were called the “The Three Graces.” Helen later summarized it for Disraeli, “Georgey’s the beauty, Carry’s the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I’m not.” Although Caroline was popular when she made her debut, there were no forthcoming offers of marriage. Although attractive, she appealed mainly to older men who weren’t put off by her sarcasm. The younger bucks weren’t as confident. The marriage mart at the time was incredibly competitive only rivaled, as Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote, 'by the slave markets of the East.' The Sheridan sisters had no dowry, the only things they to recommend them were their lineage, their beauty and their wit. Helen, the oldest sister, agreed to marry Captain Price Blackwood, heir to Lord Dufferin, against his family's opposition, and despite not being in love with him. Meanwhile her younger sister Georgina was also beginning to attract attention. At nineteen, Caroline probably worried that she might end up on the shelf.

Enter the Honorable George Chipple Norton. He had made the acquaintance of Caroline when she was 16, and had offered for her, but Mrs. Sheridan had refused, claiming that Caroline was too young to marry. Three years later, Mrs. Sheridan convinced Caroline that he would be a good match. Despite her misgivings, and knowing her family's precarious financial position, Caroline agreed to marry him.

On paper at least, George Norton seemed like a prime candidate. His brother was Lord Grantley, and George was his heir. He'd trained as a barrister, although he didn't practice. He seemed to be able provide a good life for Caroline, consisting of a townhouse in a fashionable part of London, with a few servants to make life tolerable. The reality was far worse. George Norton was a rigid, conventional man who couldn’t understand Caroline’s intellectual curiosity or her nonconformist ways. He disliked clever people, because he wasn’t clever. Also their political differences were another source of friction. Caroline's family were Whigs and George's were conservative Tories. (imagine a die-hard Republican married to a liberal Democrat).

He also resented her closeness to her family, and she hated his, a notoriously unpleasant family. Norton's sister-in-law Lady Grantley refused to be buried near her husband, saying she had lived with the Nortons all her life and that was enough! The couple frequently quarreled about money. It turned out that George didn’t have quite as much money as he’d claimed. Although he was the heir to Lord Grantly, he received no income from him. Their first home turned out to be in his barrister chambers, looked after by only an old female servant. Norton refused to support himself, since it was beneath his status as a gentleman to seek employment. However, he had no objection to Caroline supporting them!

Norton both mentally and physically abused Caroline. Over the years, he kicked her, threw an inkwell at her head, and scalded her with the contents of a teakettle. Like most bullies, he felt he had to teach Caroline her place. "We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, 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 several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment."

Caroline defended herself with the lash of her tongue, castigating his ancestors while exalting her own. When Caroline tried to leave him early in their marriage, her sister Helen convinced her that things would get better once they had children. The couple soon had 3 sons, Fletcher, Brinsley and William. Being a mother brought Caroline satisfaction and happiness.

Since leaving her husband was no out of the question, Caroline turned to prose and poetry to release her emotions. Her poems ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ (1829) and the ‘Undying One’ (1830) resulted in her being appointed as editor of the magazine ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine.’ With these appointments, Caroline began to taste a little financial freedom.

Norton was a Member of Parliament but he wasn’t very successful politician although Caroline tried to help him. She used her wit, beauty, and her family’s Whig political connections to try and further his career, establishing herself as a major society hostess. She became friends with many of the literary and political luminaries of the early Victorian period including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Trelawney, the actress Fanny Kemble, Benjamin Disraeli, the future King Leopold of the Belgians (the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales), and William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire (son of another Whig political hostess Georgiana). It was at one of her dinners that Melbourne met Disraeli for the first time. When he asked Disraeli what he wanted to be, Disraeli replied, "I want to be Prime Minister." Melbourne to his credit took him seriously and proceeded to explain to him why it wasn't possible.

After George Norton lost his re-election, He pressured Caroline to appeal to her friends to help him. To appease him, Caroline went to Lord Melbourne for help securing him a position. They soon became close friends. Melbourne at this time was a widower, having endured a long, unhappy marriage to Lady Caroline Lamb. No stranger to scandal, he'd had a rather public affair with Lady Branden, which ended when her husband sued for divorce, naming him as part of the suit. He was a suave and sophisticated older man who seemed lonely. Melbourne, in turn, was charmed by Caroline's wit and vivacity. He found George a position as a magistrate with an income of £1,000 a year. Caroline would frequently visit him at 10 Downing Street, and he would visit her at home. At first Norton was fine with the friendship as long as it benefited him.

By the time of her third pregnancy, Norton was becoming increasingly difficult, alienating both Caroline and her family. Disgusted with him and his behavior, they refused to have any contact with him. In 1834, pregnant with her 4th child, Norton beat her so severely that she miscarried. While she sought refuge with her relatives, Norton began spending time with his cousin Margaret Vaughn, who was rich. Norton also believed that Melbourne hadn’t done enough for him. When Melbourne finally took office as Prime Minister, Norton began to leak stories to the Tory press, suggesting that Melbourne was having an affair with Caroline, as well as other prominent Whigs such as the Duke of Devonshire and Thomas Duncombe.

The final break came over something as trivial as where to spend Easter. While Caroline went to consult her sister, Norton sent the children to stay with his cousin, and ordered the servants to bar Caroline from returning to the house. Legally at this time in England, children were the property of the husband to do with what he liked, regardless of what the mother might want. Also, by law, the house and everything in it, including Caroline’s personal belongings, belonged to him as well.

To make matters worse, Norton brought a suit for ‘Criminal Conversation,’ accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne, who was Prime Minister at the time. He also went to Melbourne and demanded he pay him £1,400 to drop the suit. Melbourne refused to be blackmailed, so Norton took the matter to court. He also took Caroline’s children away from her, refusing to allow her to see them. She had to resort to subterfuge in order to even catch a glimpse of them, although Norton moved them around to make it even more difficult.

The publicity almost brought down the government which some historians believe was partly Norton’s intent all along. At the time of the suit, William IV was in failing health, and the young Princess Victoria was waiting in the wings. The Tories wanted to be the ones to influence the new Queen. It was to their advantage that Melbourne be portrayed as an ageing rouĂ©, spending his time seducing young wives, instead of as a vital politician. Norton was unable to prove that Melbourne and Caroline were having an affair. His only witnesses were disgruntled servants who had been dismissed, and who had probably been paid off to testify. Caroline of course was not allowed to testify in her own defense, since she had no legal identity apart from her husband. Both Melbourne and Caroline insisted that they had nothing more than a friendship. Instead her family took the stand to state that Norton had a mistress, and that he had tried to blackmail the Prime Minister.

Although the jury returned a verdict of 'not proven', the damage was done to Caroline’s reputation. It didn’t matter that she and Melbourne denied any impropriety or that they had been found innocent, she was a fallen woman. She was ostracized by society for a number of years, while Melbourne went on to become Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister.

Caroline didn’t take the situation lying down, she was not Richard Brinsley Sheridan's granddaughter for nothing. When she tried to divorce Norton, she discovered that she couldn’t. At the time, only a man could sue for divorce, and the only grounds was a wife’s adultery. Since Caroline had been declared innocent of adultery in the recent case, Norton could no longer divorce her. She became passionately devoted to the cause of trying to get the laws changed. She lobbied all her influential friends to her cause, convincing Thomas Talfourd to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the court of Chancery for custody of children who were under the age of 7. She also began to write political pamphlets under a pseudonym, Pearce Stevenson. Primarily because of her intense campaigning, Parliament finally passed the infant custody bill in 1839, which allowed mothers to appeal for custody and to have access to children under 16.

Caroline never considered herself to be a feminist, didn’t support the suffragette cause. She felt that men were superior. Her argument wasn’t that men and women were equal but that they should be treated equally under the law, justice should apply to rich and poor, male and female alike. She saw the law as having a special responsibility to protect people who were dependent from abuses of power.

Unfortunately while Caroline triumphed in having the law passed, it didn’t help her personally. Norton simply took the children and moved to Scotland, where English law didn’t apply. When her son William fell from his horse, contracting lockjaw, Caroline wasn’t able to get there before he died. As Caroline late wrote, "One of my children was afterwards killed [thrown a horse], for want of the commonest care a mother would have given to her household. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week before he sent to inform me. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said ‘I am here - is my boy better?’ ‘No’, she said ‘he is not better - he is dead.’ And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined...." After William’s death, Norton decided to increase Caroline’s access to her remaining two children.

Norton had initially provided support to the tune of 300 pounds per year for Caroline and the children but when hediscovered that Caroline had received a legacy from both Lord Melbourne after his death and her mother, he refused to pay for her support any longer. When Caroline protested, and tried to get him to pay, he took her to court, reviving the old scandal that Caroline had been Melbourne’s mistress. Caroline lost the case but it lead to her campaigning to change the law concerning divorce. She even took her cause to Queen Victoria penning a stirring letter in defense of women. Here is an excerpt for the letter:

“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....She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property....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...."

The club-loungers smile in scorn. ‘What is all this disturbance about? Woman’s rights and woman’s wrongs?—pooh, pooh; nonsense; Bloomerism; Americanism! we can’t have that sort of thing in England. Women must submit; those who don’t, are bad women—depend upon it: all bad women’....Even now, friends say to me:—’Why write? why struggle? it is the law! You will do no good.’ But if every one slacked courage with that doubt, nothing would ever be achieved in this world. This much I will do,—woman though I be. I will put on record,—in French, German, English, and Italian,—what the law for women was in England, in the year of civilization and Christianity 1855, and the 16th year of the reign of a female sovereign!”

In the 1857 Marriage and Divorce Act, women could now sue for divorce, the only proviso was that they had to not only prove adultery but another cause such as cruelty as well. They could also inherit and bequeath property like single women, their earnings as a deserted wife would now be protected from any claim of her husband, and a seperated wife could now make contracts and sue. Caroline however needed to generate income, since there was none forthcoming from Norton. Like her mother and her grandfather, she turned to her pen to make a living, publishing not only novels but also plays.

In 1840, Caroline fell in love with a prominent Conservative politician Sidney Herbert. They conducted a secret five year relationship which ended when Caroline was accused of leaking information to the Times of London that the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, planned to go against his Tory backers by advocating repeal of the Corn Laws, to make it easy for people to obtain cheap corn. Although it was later proven that it Lord Aberdeen's fault, he'd hoped that by leaking the news to the Times of London it would get the paper on the Prime Minister's side, the damage was once again done to her reputation, the Prime Minister's government was forced to resign and Herbert ended the relationship. He later married another woman in 1846.

Caroline was to suffer more sadness when her eldest son Fletcher died of tuberculosis in 1859. However, her second son, Thomas Brinsley Norton, eventually inherited the title of Baron Grantley, which is still held by the family (all the title holders have had the names Richard and Brinsley including the current 8th Baron Grantley, Ricahrd William Brinsley Norton in a nod to their illustrious ancestor Sheridan.)

Caroline was finally free of George Norton when he died in 1875, freeing her to remarry, after a suitable morning period, her friend of 25 years, Scottish historical writer and politician, Sir. W. Stirling Maxwell. However, their marital happiness was short-lived as Caroline died three months later on June 15, 1877.

Later after her death, author George Meredith used her as the basis of his fictional character Diana Warwick in Diana of the Crossways, which repeated the rumor that she had betrayed Herbert for money.

Caroline Norton should be remembered for her ability to turn adversity around. When the going got tough, she fought back and never gave up. While she may have worked to change the laws for selfish reasons, in the end, her persistence and tenacity benefited all women in England.


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