A Celebration of Women Writers

Caroline Norton (1808-1877)

The Three Graces

When the three Sheridan sisters entered polite society in London in the late 1820's, they were spoken of with approval as "The Three Graces". Helen, the eldest daughter, summarized their merits years later to Disraeli: "Georgey's the beauty, Carry's the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not."

They desperately needed to make a good impression. Their grandfather, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was well-known for plays such as The School for Scandal, but died in poverty. Their father, Tom Sheridan, eloped with Caroline Henrietta Callender when her family opposed his penniless suit. He died young, leaving her with four sons, three daughters, and a very modest pension. The widow was lucky to be offered a Grace and Favour apartment at Hampton Court, charity in memory of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

With so many children to establish, and so few resources available, it was essential for the three girls to make the best of their opportunities for marriage. By convention, the elder sisters must be married (or at least engaged) before the younger. Since Georgiana, the youngest, was the beauty of the family, this put considerable pressure on Helen and Caroline!

Captain Price Blackwood, heir to the Irish peer Lord Dufferin, fell in love with Helen. He sought her hand in spite of her lack of dowery, the initial opposition of his family, and her own hesitancy. Helen eventually agreed to marry a man she did not love -- but in time came to love the man she had married. They were married in 1826, and by a year later, were deeply happy together.

Caroline, in her turn, also faced the difficult decision of whether to marry where she did not love. She was popular mostly with older men, who appreciated her flirtacious wit without minding her sarcasm; younger men were perhaps less confident, and less interested. Of those she had met during her London season, none came forward. Only the Hon. George Norton, brother of Lord Grantley, proposed marriage. He had seen her when she was a school-girl of sixteen, and expressed interest in her. Now he wrote to her mother again. They knew little about him, beyond that his family connections and income were vouched for. He was trained as a barrister but did not practice; he and his family were strong Tories. (The Sheridans were as strongly Radicals.) Nearly at the end of her second season, with a lovely younger sister attracting attention (Georgina later married Lord Seymour, heir to the Duke of Somerset), Caroline made her decision. She married George Chapple Norton on the 30th of June, 1827, at St. George's, Hanover Square. She was nineteen; he was twenty-six.

An Unfortunate Marriage

Their marriage was a disaster. It would have been hard to find two people more ill-suited. Caroline was outgoing, witty, and head-strong. Norton disliked 'cleverness', was not clever himself, and would discuss neither public nor their private affairs with her. Their political differences were a source of friction. He resented her closeness with her family; she came to dislike his relatives. He determined to teach her not to 'set herself up' against him. Within a few months of their marriage, he became physically abusive towards her.

A frequent trigger of their quarrels was money. Caroline's mother had been assured, when the marriage was proposed, that Norton had a sufficient income to support a family - presumably in a town house, with servants, and amenities. Instead, their first home was in his barristers' chambers, which were looked after only by an old woman servant. It became increasingly clear that the representations made to Caroline and to her family about Norton's financial position had been false. He was heir to Lord Grantley, but received no income from him. He refused to support himself in any way that was 'beneath' him - in fact, in any way that required either thought or effort.

Caroline began writing both to amuse and express herself, and to help support herself and her husband. Writing was in the family tradition. The Sheridan name was one to attract attention. Her first book came out in 1829: The Sorrows of Rosalie, A Tale with Other Poems. By then, Caroline also had a son, Fletcher Spencer Norton. In both roles, author and mother, Caroline found great satisfaction and happiness.

Meanwhile, George Norton put pressure on Caroline to ask her 'grand Court friends' to make him some appointment 'suitable to his rank.' Caroline swallowed her pride and approached friends and acquaintances about the possibility of achieving an appointment of some sort for her husband. In 1830, the new Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, came to visit, his curiosity aroused by a letter from the grand-daughter of his old friend, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It was the beginning of a friendship with far-reaching consequences. With George Norton's knowledge and permission Melbourne began to visit Caroline Norton regularly. Other visitors followed, and Caroline became increasingly established as a Whig political salonniere. Melbourne eventually found an appointment for George Norton as a magistrate, with an income of £1000 per year.

The next few years were the most stable of the Norton's marriage. Their income had increased, due to the Melbourne appointment and to Caroline's writing. She began to publish prose as well as poetry. She achieved recognition through her writing and enjoyed her influence as a political hostess and friend of Lord Melbourne. She was happy with her children: Fletcher and Brinsley.

But by the time of Caroline's third confinement, in 1832, her relationship with her husband was becoming increasingly difficult. His violent behaviour alienated both Caroline and her family. In 1834, Caroline's family became so disgusted with Norton's conduct that they refused further contact with him. In 1835, pregnant for the fourth time, she was badly beaten and miscarried, soon after a reconciliation. Increasingly, she and her children sought refuge with her relatives, while Norton spent his time with a rich cousin, Margaret Vaughan. The final break between the Nortons came after a quarrel about where the children should spend Easter, 1836. When Caroline left the house to consult her sister, Norton unexpectedly sent the children to Margaret Vaughan, and ordered the servants not to let Caroline back in. Legally, as their father, he could dispose of them as he wished, regardless of their mother's wishes. Also by law, the house and all that was in it, even Caroline's personal correspondence, clothing, and manuscripts, were legally Norton's.

The School For Scandal

In previous separations, Caroline had left Norton, seeking shelter for herself and the children. This time, Norton was the initiator. On May, 1836, the Hon. George Norton brought a suit for "Criminal Conversation" (which implied rather more than conversation) against Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister of England. Most immediately, success of the suit would be the first step towards divorcing Caroline for adultery. Norton also hoped to gain substantial damages - £10,000 - from Lord Melbourne.

Beyond that, it was an action with far-reaching implications. It caused a furour in polite society and in politics, with the potential to bring down the Melbourne government. For Norton and his Tory associates, this was entirely desirable. King William IV was in failing health; the young Princess Victoria was the successor to the throne. The Tories wanted to ensure that they would influence the new Queen. It was entirely to their advantage to portray Melbourne as a dissolute old roue, seducing a young and (previously) virtuous wife. For Melbourne, it was essential to discredit any evidence that suggested that his involvement with Caroline was more than friendship. Caroline, whose reputation was the crux of the case, was herself not considered a principal in it. She had no legal identity apart from her husband: she could neither attend nor testify.

The trial was held on June 23, 1836. At the end of the day, the jury unanimously agreed in favour of Lord Melbourne, without leaving the courtroom to deliberate. The trial had been a farce. The prosecution had produced no convincing witnesses: only disgruntled servants from several years before, who had been wined and dined (and possibly paid) by Lord Grantley (Norton's brother).

Though Melbourne had been exonerated, Caroline Norton had not. Polite society made its own decisions; the trial itself, regardless of its cause or outcome, had branded Caroline a scandalous woman. It was an attitude that she would deal with from others for the rest of her life.

Following the trial, Caroline Norton consulted lawyers to see if she could divorce George Norton. She found to her dismay that she could not. Only a husband could sue for divorce, not a wife, and almost the only grounds for divorce was the wife's adultery. By declaring Caroline Norton innocent of adultery, Norton v. Melbourne had ensured that the Nortons could not be divorced. In addition, George Norton retained complete legal custody of their children. He refused to allow Caroline access to them: she could not change his mind.

She decided to change the law.

The Infant Custody Bill

The Norton case was one of several that brought attention to the complete control of husbands over custody of their children. Again, Caroline lobbied friends and acquaintances in government, this time to raise interest in legal reform. She convinced Thomas Talfourd, a serjeant-at-law and a member of Parliament, to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the court of Chancery for custody of children under seven years of age. She also began to write political pamphlets advocating changes in custody law: Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father (1837), The Separation of Mother & Child by the Law of Custody of Infants, Considered (1838) and A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill , which was written under the pseudonym Pearce Stevenson, Esq. (1839). Parliament passed the Infant Custody Bill in 1839, allowing mothers to appeal for custody of children under seven, and access to children under sixteen.

Caroline had triumphed. But Norton foiled her once again. He took their children to Scotland, where the English laws did not apply. Emotionally manipulative, he would appear to consider, and then deny, her requests for access. Then, in 1842, their youngest son William contracted lockjaw after a fall from his horse. Caroline was notified of his illness, but not in time to reach him before he died. Following this accident, Norton increased Caroline's access to her other sons.

In Honour, But Not in Law

In 1848, George Norton approached his wife with an agreement which he claimed would be in both their interests. If he obtained a life mortgage on a trust fund which had been settled on her (and therefore could not be mortgaged without her consent), he would guarantee her an allowance of £500 per year, and never again interfere in her affairs. She, in return, would pay her expenses herself, from her allowance and the money she earned from writing, and not refer any debts to him (as she was entitled to do by law.) It was, in effect, a separation agreement. With misgivings, Caroline Norton agreed. A document was drawn up by a lawyer, and signed by both parties.

It was a time of grief and anxiety. Fletcher, their eldest son, was ill of tuberculosis in Lisbon. Caroline used part of Norton's allowance to go there and nurse him. On her way there, she heard that Lord Melbourne had died. The following summer, Caroline received word that his sister Lady Palmerston had made her an allowance of £200 a year, in accordance with Melbourne's dying wishes. In 1851, Caroline Norton received another legacy - this time from her mother. Caroline Sheridan's mistrust of George Norton was strong; she secured £480 a year to Caroline under the laws of Equity, so that Norton could not touch it.

Her distrust was well-placed. George Norton wrote to Caroline to announce that given her mother's legacy, he saw no need to continue paying her the support they had agreed upon. He proposed to reduce it by £200 a year. When Caroline, appalled, replied that he was legally bound to pay her the full sum, he laughed. As, by law, man and wife were one, they could not contract with one another. The deed they had signed was therefore legally meaningless. He was constrained only 'in honour', not 'in law' to pay her an allowance - and ceased to do so in 1852.

Caroline, who would not receive anything from her mother's will for at least six more months, was left with few options for paying her bills. On the advice of her lawyers, she referred an outstanding bill (from a Mr. Thrupps) to Norton for payment. Norton refused to pay it, and Thrupps v. Norton went to court on 18 August, 1853.

George Norton's objective was to demonstrate that Caroline was able to support herself adequately without receiving money from him to pay her debts. From the first, his tactics were to inconvenience and intimidate. As her husband, he was legally entitled to take control of all her accounts and all information relating to them. He subpoenaed not only Caroline's servants, publishers, and bankers, but Caroline herself. For a lady, it was a position of 'horrible strangeness'.

Norton's behaviour during the trial was agressive and threatening. He sat close to Caroline, and advised his lawyer, in an undertone, on how to question her. He also used information he had gained from her records, about the legacy from Lady Palmerston, to try to discredit her. He suggested that the legacy proved that she had been Melbourne's mistress. It was a revival of all the old scandal. Caroline, at first barely able to speak, was enraged enough to rise and address the court, making her own defense against old and new slander and injustice. The court applauded her. But the court case was eventually lost on a technicality. Thrupps had first presented his bill to Caroline before Norton withdrew his support, and so Caroline was held responsible for paying it.

The Married Woman's Property and Divorce Act

The 1853 court case made Caroline all too aware of the fragility of her legal and financial position. As a wife, she had no legal identity apart from her husband, whether she was happily married, living separately, or being actively abused by her husband. She could not enter into a legally binding contract on her own behalf, or institute a suit in a court of law. Her husband, meanwhile, was legally entitled to all income and possessions that were not explicitly secured to her alone by the laws of Equity - including the income from her writings.

Infuriated by her husband's treatment, and the laws that allowed it, Caroline Norton determined that once again, she would try to change the law. She publicly stated that since her husband was entitled to the income from her writing, she would henceforth write solely about the need to change the marriage and property laws by which he profited. Again, she sought reforms in an area of increasing public concern. A bill suggesting minor revisions to the law (mainly transferral of cases from the old ecclesiastical courts to a new court) had been introduced in May, 1854, by Lord Cranworth. In 1854, Norton's English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century was privately published. She followed it in 1855 with A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage & Divorce Bill. In the next parliamentary session, Lord Lyndhurst paraphrased long selections from Norton's writings in discussing and amending Lord Cranworth's bill. When the Bill was finally passed in 1857, it included several sections that were closely based on her pamphlet A Review of the Divorce Bill of 1856, with propositions for an amendment of the laws affecting married persons (1857).

In attempting to change the law, Caroline Norton was faced with making the case that women existed AT ALL, in a legal sense. For the position of married women under the law was that they were "NON-EXISTENT." The properties, the persons, and the rights of English women were all subsumed into and controllable by their husbands, by law, upon marriage. She captures this succinctly:

I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence. {1}

She associated herself strongly with other women, presenting herself as a priviledged person who, through her writing, had the potential to fight for a just cause. She allied herself with all who struggled against injustice, and compared the situation of women to that of slavery, and her work to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I do not consider this as MY cause: though it is a cause of which (unfortunately for me) I am an illustration. It is the cause of all the women [...] If I were personally set at ease about it to-morrow, that would not alter the law. The same injustice might happen next day to some woman who could not struggle, or earn, or write; for whom no one would come forward; {2}

Norton did not argue that women were the equals of men, like Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of her friend Mary Shelley. Rather, she argued that they must be treated equally under the law: the principles of justice must apply to rich and poor, male and female, master and apprentice alike. Both were radical claims in 1855. Norton saw the law as having a special responsibility to ensure that persons in dependent positions are protected from abuses of power. She refused to accept that the law could act on behalf of abused apprentices in factories or subordinates at sea, and not act on behalf of women in their homes, who suffered the abuse of their husbands.

Norton saw clearly that her society was one in which women were disadvantaged, and males enjoyed (and abused) considerable prerogatives. Characteristically, she responded with ironic wit:

"While the laws that women appeal to, are administered by men, we need not fear that their appeals will be too carelessly granted. " {3}

Frequently, she used her wit strategically, to the considerable disadvantage of those she opposed. An infelicitous reference to male infidelity as "a little profligate", by Chancellor Cranworth, is used to effect by Caroline Norton. Norton clearly associates the phrase with Cranworth, and then repeatedly introduces it throughout A Letter to the Queen. With this device she challenges Cranworth's morality and credibility.

Other repetitions throughout the text suggest both her intentional use of language to influence the reader, and her emotional connection to her topic. Repeated emphasis of the "NON-EXISTENT" status of women conveys an increasing impression of Norton's frustration and anger. One gets a strong sense of the daily contradiction with which she lived: she is so clearly a strong, vital, passionate person -- yet legally a nonentity!

This is most noticeable when it interferes with the flow and impact of her writing. In referring to her own wrongs, Norton finds it difficult (understandably!) to exercise the same direction and control that she manifests elsewhere in her writing: she tends to run on, to become trapped in cycles of remembered injury. Her recollections of a macabre pet name used by her husband - Greenacre - contribute little to the political significance and impact of her pamphlets. However, such recollections do convey a sense of Norton's vivid experience of distortion and fear. It is when she is least controlled - least polished - least persuasive - that we often hear her own voice most clearly. In English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and elsewhere, Norton speaks clearly of her life and her experience of marital abuse. Her voice resonates strongly across time: it could be the voice of a friend or relative of today.

It is to her lasting credit that Caroline Norton succeeded in improving the laws affecting married women in several substantial ways. Under the new law, a married woman could inherit and bequeath property, just as a single woman could; a wife who was separated from her husband could be protected from his claims on her earnings; and a wife could enter into contracts and civil suits on her own behalf. Her proposals were not as extensive as those of Barbara Leigh Smith, who campaigned for property rights for all women, but they substantially improved the legal situation for married women in England, just as her earlier work improved custody law.

Lost and Saved

Following the passage of The Married Woman's Property and Divorce Act, Caroline Norton returned to writing fiction and poetry. The publication of works such as The Lady of La Garaye provided a still-needed source of income. Lost and Saved (1863), possibly her best-written novel, was initially successful but lost popularity after a reviewer pronounced it immoral. Her last success was Old Sir Douglas (1867), which was serialized in both England and the United States.

She was increasingly in ill-health, and saddened by the deaths of family and friends. She saw George Norton once more when her eldest son Fletcher died of tuberculosis in 1859. On March 20, 1875, George Norton died, followed a few weeks later by his brother, Lord Grantley. Caroline's second son, Brinsley, succeeded to the title.

On March 1st, 1877, Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton married for the second time. Her second husband was Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. They had been good friends for nearly 25 years. Had it not been for her marriage to Norton, they might well have been more. Instead, Stirling-Maxwell had married Anna, daughter of Lord Leven, when he inherited his uncle's title and estates in 1865. It had been a happy marriage, but Anna died tragically in 1874. Both of them free, Stirling-Maxwell offered Caroline Norton security and comfort as well as affection. At last, though only for a short time, Caroline enjoyed the happiness of a marriage of friends and equals. In early summer, she was taken ill, dying on June 15, 1877. Sir William Stirling-Maxwell died exactly seven months later, on January 15, 1878.

  1. A Letter to the Queen, p. 96.
  2. A Letter to the Queen, p. 89.
  3. A Letter to the Queen, p. 37.

A Celebration of Women Writers