Norton, Caroline (1808–1877)

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Norton, Caroline (1808–1877)

English author who, through personal experience, became an authority on, and campaigner for the reform of, the law relating to women. Name variations: Caroline Sheridan, Lady Stirling-Maxwell; (pseudonym)Pearce Stevenson. Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan on March 22, 1808, in London, England; died in London on June 15, 1877; daughter of Thomas Sheridan (a public official) and Caroline Henrietta (Callander) Sheridan; granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley; sister of the British poet Helen Selina Blackwood (Lady Dufferin, 1807–1867); educated at home and at a boarding school in Surrey; married George Chapple Norton, in 1827; married William Stirling-Maxwell, in 1877; children: (first marriage) Fletcher Norton (b. 1829); Thomas Brinsley Norton (b. 1831); William Norton (b. 1833).

Began career as a writer (1829); moved among fashionable society in London and shared close friendship with Lord Melbourne which led to her husband bringing a court case alleging adultery (1836); subsequently was separated from children and campaigned for access to them; influenced passage of Infant Custody Bill (1839); further disputes with her husband contributed to case for reforming divorce and married women's property laws (1857); continued successful writing career until her death.

Selected writings:

A Voice from the Factories: A Poem (John Murray, 1836); The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered (Ridgway, 1837); (as "Pearce Stevenson") A Plain

Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill (Ridgway, 1839); The Child of the Islands (Chapman & Hall, 1845); English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (privately printed, 1854); A Letter to the Queen on Lord Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855); The Lady of la Garaye (Macmillan, 1862).

In the spring of 1836, the troubled marriage of George Norton and Caroline Sheridan Norton took a new turn. For several years, the couple had inflicted on each other a variety of painful treatment: he physically, by violent attacks against her person, she by humiliating words and defiant actions. For the most part, the couple's three small sons had been spared involvement in the bitter quarrels that had taken place, but, having decided to break with his wife, George Norton spirited them away from the family home while their mother was briefly absent. He followed up this action by accusing the then prime minister of committing adultery with his wife. The court that heard his petition quickly decided there were no grounds to the accusation, but it was to be several years before Caroline Norton gained access to her children. Her campaign for justice affected the position of all wives and mothers in Victorian England; before it was over, she had helped to reform the law as it related to the custody of children, married women's property, and divorce.

"All the Sheridans," Lord Melbourne once told Queen Victoria , "are a little vulgar." He might have added that members of the family were noted also for their vivacity, charm, and wit, and for a tendency to become involved in disputes, scandals, and financial scrapes. Caroline maintained this colorful tradition. Her grandfather was the great playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, and also for over 30 years a Whig member of the House of Commons. He died in poverty in 1816, but was accorded a splendid funeral procession and buried in Westminster Abbey. Her father Thomas Sheridan was born in 1775, the only son of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley , the beautiful and musically gifted "Maid of Bath" with whom he had eloped. Thomas Sheridan's life, like that of his father, was often dramatic. In his late 20s, to escape both the aftermath of a divorce case in which he was cited as co-respondent and his creditors, he moved, as Lord Moira's aide de camp, to Edinburgh where he met and in 1805 eloped with Caroline Henrietta Callander (Sheridan) . She too was noted for her charm and physical attractiveness.

Within a few years, the couple had four children; the third, Caroline, was born in London on March 22, 1808. Thomas Sheridan, through his father's political influence, had been found a sinecure, as muster-master general of Ireland (a post that did not require him to move from his villa in Tunbridge Wells or his town house in London). In 1813, he was appointed as colonial paymaster at the Cape of Good Hope, where residence was essential, but also desired in the hope that the southern African climate would alleviate the consumption from which he suffered. After a few years, however, he died and his widow returned to England in 1817 with her two sons, born at the Cape. Caroline had remained with two aunts in Scotland, but now the children were brought up together at Hampton Court, in a grace and favor residence—the social and political connections of the family had again proved of assistance.

Caroline's upbringing was apparently happy, creative, and somewhat disorderly. Before she reached her teens she had decided she would be a writer, and one early effort, The Dandies' Rout, was taken by a publisher and printed as a small book. In the absence of a father, the children were hard to control and seemingly because of this Caroline was sent to a small school in Surrey, near Wonersh Park, the seat of Lord Grantley. It was a fateful move. Within a few months, at the age of 16, she came to the notice of George Norton, Lord Grantley's younger brother who was then in his mid-20s. She seems hardly to have been aware of Norton, who wrote to her mother to ask for Caroline's hand in marriage. Mrs. Sheridan, while not agreeing to his request, did not reject the possibility of a later courtship.

In the London season of 1826, Caroline came out; that is, she attended a round of social occasions, the genteel conventions of which scarcely concealed a ruthlessly competitive marriage market. Upper-class girls, urged on by their parents, were desperate to marry well, and a good marriage was measured by the wealth and status of the husband. A young woman who failed to marry at all faced social isolation. Paid employment was frowned upon and in any case few opportunities for it existed. Spinsterhood was regarded as an unfortunate and involuntary condition. Though an acknowledged beauty—her expressive eyes and olive skin were widely noticed—with a lively and amusing personality, Caroline's season ended without a suitable offer of marriage. One sister, Helen Selina Blackwood , who had also come out, was engaged to the heir of Lord Dufferin, while her other sister, Georgiana (Seymour) , was expected to make a brilliant match (she became the wife of the duke of Somerset's heir); these circumstances helped to persuade Caroline to reconsider George Norton's proposal.

In the summer of 1827, Caroline Sheridan became Caroline Norton—or, as she styled herself, the Hon. Mrs. Norton, for she had an acute awareness of her station in life. As her husband, a barrister, had become a member of Parliament for Guildford in 1826, his prospects appeared good. However, he was a Tory, while Caroline held to the family's Whig allegiance. In 1830, he lost his seat, Caroline informing Georgiana:

Norton's election is lost, and with that mixture of sanguine hope, credulity and vanity which distinguishes him he assures me that, although thrown out, he was the popular candidate; that the opponents are hated, and that all those who voted against him did it with tears.

Sheridan, Caroline Henrietta Callander (1779–1851)

English author. Name variations: Caroline Campbell; Caroline Henrietta Callander. Born Caroline Henrietta Callander in 1779; died in 1851; daughter of Colonel Callander, afterwards Sir James Campbell (1745–1832); married Thomas Sheridan (1775–1817, a poet, public official, and son of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan), in 1805; children: Helen Selina Blackwood, Lady Dufferin (1807–1867); Caroline Norton (1808–1877); and Lady Georgiana Seymour (later duchess of Somerset).

Along with producing three novels, including Carwell, or Crime and Sorrow (1830), Caroline Henrietta Sheridan was a celebrated beauty and the mother of the oft-quoted "three beauties": Lady Helen Selina Blackwood, Caroline Norton , and Lady Georgiana Seymour , later duchess of Somerset. On the death of her husband in 1817 while in Colonial Service, Caroline Sheridan was granted grace and favor and resided at Hampton Court.

Seymour, Georgiana (b. around 1809)

Duchess of Somerset. Name variations: Lady Georgiana Seymour; Georgiana Sheridan. Born Jane Georgiana Sheridan around 1809; daughter of Thomas Sheridan (a public official) andCaroline Henrietta Callander Sheridan (1779–1851); granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan andElizabeth Linley ; sister ofCaroline Norton (1808–1877) andHelen Selina Blackwood , Lady Dufferin (1807–1867); married Edward Adolphus Seymour (1804–1885), 12th duke of Somerset.

Her contemptuous tone reflected the antipathy that had quickly developed between the couple. George's outbursts of temper, which if Caroline did not provoke she did little to appease, sometimes ended with attacks on her person. These did not stop after her family remonstrated with him. Indeed, the Sheridans' unconcealed scorn perhaps made his behavior worse. However, in the circumstances, there was little Caroline could do. They already had one child, Fletcher, born in 1829, and, as there were phases in which the marriage was less intolerable, she tended to pursue those things that interested her and leave her husband to his own devices. She began her career as a writer. Her first book, The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale, with other Poems, was widely praised on its appearance in 1829 when its Byronic style appealed to the literary taste of the day. She followed it with other verses and took over the editorship of the fashionable Belle Assemblée and Court Magazine. A second son, Thomas Brinsley, was born in 1831 and a third, William, two years later.

Caroline Norton was a natural prima donna…. She was vital, warm-hearted, impulsive, temperamental, egotistic and not quite a lady.

—David Cecil

Caroline Norton's strikingly good looks, artistic accomplishments (she sang pleasantly and set some of her own lyrics to music), social connections—and perhaps her flirtatious and gossipy manner—enabled her to establish a small salon that was frequented by such literary and political figures as the young Benjamin Disraeli, Mary Shelley , and Samuel Rogers. Meanwhile, George had been appointed, at a salary of £1,000 per year, as a police court magistrate. Caroline had secured this post by pleading, in the manner of the time, to the Whig home secretary, Lord Melbourne, reminding him of his friendship with her grandfather and asking that a paid appointment be found for her husband. Melbourne had decided to visit Caroline in person and, captivated by her, formed an intimate friendship which did not lessen when he became prime minister in 1834.

For a few years George Norton apparently remained unconcerned by his wife's eminent admirer, although the couple's marriage was still marked by quarrels. Matters came to a head in 1836 when Georgiana suggested that Caroline should visit her country house for Easter, bringing the children but not her husband. In response, George arranged for his sons to be moved to Wonersh Park, refused to allow his wife to return to their home, and announced that he intended to sue for divorce, on the grounds of her adultery with Melbourne. The case came to court in June 1836. According to the law, Caroline had no standing in it, and could neither appear nor be legally represented. However, Sir John Campbell, the lawyer appearing on behalf of Melbourne, tore the case to shreds, and the jury, without even leaving the courtroom, returned a verdict against George Norton. Although at the time it was believed that political enemies of Melbourne had instigated the case, there were also those who assumed that he and Caroline were guilty. Even in public, she had treated him with great familiarity. The earl of Malmesbury recalled an occasion in 1835 at the French ambassador's when she "talked in a most extraordinary manner and kicked Lord Melbourne's hat over his head." He added that the "whole corps diplomatique were amazed." Yet both maintained their innocence, and modern authorities tend to take them at their word (although Clarke Olney, the editor of their correspondence, has suggested that, at the least, their friendship was more emotionally charged than most).

Despite the court having rejected George Norton's case, the law as it existed allowed him to deny his wife any access to their children. For the next few years, Caroline attempted to maintain contact with her sons. Her husband, depending on his moods, allowed occasional meetings, including a week's visit at Christmas, 1841. In July 1842, William fell from his pony, became ill, and died before Caroline could arrive. After this, Fletcher and Thomas were allowed to spend part of their holidays from Eton school with their mother.

While involved in these personal negotiations, she had taken part in a campaign to reform the law relating to child custody. In connection with this, she wrote two pamphlets, The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered (1837) and, using the pseudonym Pearce Stevenson, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill (1839)—the latter after the House of Lords had held up the Child Custody Bill earlier passed by the Commons. The new legislation allowed a court to transfer custody of children under the age of seven to the mother, and after seven to allow visiting rights should the father reclaim legal custody.

By the mid-1840s, Caroline Norton's life had regained some stability. She was still regarded as one of the most accomplished and handsome hostesses in London; the scandal involving Melbourne did her little harm socially. Her reputation as an author grew. In 1840, Hartley Coleridge wrote of her as "the Byron of Modern Poetesses," while Charles Dickens, who had taken a close interest in her campaign to gain access to her sons, professed to admire her literary work. The income from her writings was considerable—as she pointed out to the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, in 1843 when vainly making a claim for the vacant post of Poet Laureate. According to law, George Norton could take any of his wife's property, including income she received for writing, as, though separated, they were still legally married. In fact, he paid her an allowance, but when in 1851 Caroline's mother died, leaving her an annuity, he decided to reconsider the financial arrangements between them. He was infuriated to discover that his wife had also received money from Melbourne, who had died in 1848. This rekindled his suspicions of misconduct between them, and he ceased to pay her allowance. She retaliated by leaving unpaid her bills and referring creditors to her husband, who was legally responsible for her debts.

Another court case followed when a carriage-maker sued George for the debt Caroline had incurred. Again, personal details became freely available to those who were curious about the disputatious couple. Both wrote to The Times to add to the information that had been made public. In another pair of pamphlets, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and A Letter to the Queen on Lord Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (1855), Caroline vehemently argued the case for reform of the laws relating to divorce and married women's property. She mixed together details of her own marriage, cases of other women who had suffered from the way the law was applied, and more general arguments for change.

She was not alone in campaigning for new legislation. Others, such as Barbara Bodichon , were also pressing for reform, usually independently of Caroline who was often regarded as too personally involved in the issue. Some reformers also held the view that but for her own unhappy marriage she would have shown little concern for the hardships endured by wives who suffered the harsh treatment of their husbands and then that of the courts. Her lack of feminist sympathies is evident in her letter to The Times in 1838: "The natural position of woman is in inferiority to man. Amen! That is a thing of God's appointing, not of man's devising. I have never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality." She repeated similar views in her pamphlet of 1854, although perhaps such sentiments were expressed as a way of disarming some opponents. In 1857, the law was changed, both to make divorce a little easier to obtain and to give a degree of protection to the property of women. In subsequent years, gradually, though slowly, the rights of women were recognized.

In 1854, Caroline's son Thomas Brinsley Norton, true to Sheridan impetuosity, married a peasant girl he had met on the island of Capri and in the two years following became the father of a son and a daughter. Caroline helped to bring up the children, and perhaps thus gained a little consolation for the broken upbringing of her own sons. Although the death of son Fletcher Norton in 1859 was another personal blow, she continued to enjoy a high reputation with the reading public. Her novels, Stuart of Dunleath (1851), Lost and Saved (1863) and Old Sir Douglas (1867), have melodramatic scenes and improbable plots; their passionate and impulsive heroines have been regarded as semi-autobiographical. Though once widely admired, neither her poetry nor her prose has retained its appeal. Some of her writing exists in modern editions, issued mainly for scholars rather than for the wider public; one modern critic has linked her with other Victorian writers, popular in their day but not since, as one of "a flight of lame ducks."

It is her struggle to reform the law and the intensity of her own experiences that give Caroline Norton a place in history, combined with a vivid and powerful personality and the impact it had on her contemporaries. Her later years were spent in relative tranquility. She and George Norton met occasionally when he visited their grandchildren, though when he died in 1875 she is said to have complained that he had not lived long enough to make her Lady Grantley (George's elder brother, Lord Grantley, died shortly after and the title passed to Thomas Brinsley Norton).

There was one more twist in the plot of her own life. In March 1877, when in fading health, she married Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a Scottish landowner and long-standing admirer. She died just over three months later, on June 15, and was buried at Keir in Scotland where her second husband held property. After her death, several diaries and memoirs by figures in society and politics appeared in print giving their authors' impressions of Caroline. A novel by George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways (1884), was modeled on incidents in her life. One account of 1854 by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake leaves a vivid pen portrait of a remarkable personality:

Mrs Norton … is a beautiful and gifted woman: her talents are of the highest order, and she has carefully cultivated them—has read deeply, has a fine memory, and wit only to be found in a Sheridan. No one can compare with her in telling a story—so pointed, so happy, and so easy; but she is rather a professed story-teller, and brings them in both in and out of season, and generally egotistically. Still she has only talents—genius she has nothing of, or of the genius-nature nothing of the simplicity, the pathos, the rapid changes from mirth to emotion. No, she is a perpetual actress, consummately studying and playing her part, and that always the attempt to fascinate—she cares not whom. Occasionally I got her to talk thinkingly, and then she said things which showed great thought and observation—quite oracular, and not to be forgotten. I felt at first that she could captivate me, but the glamour soon went off. If intellect, and perfect self-possession, and great affected deference for me could have subjugated me, I should have been her devoted admirer.


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

Cecil, David. Melbourne. London: Constable, 1955.

Chedzoy, Alan. A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton. London: Allison & Busby, 1996.

Forster, Margaret. Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

Hoge, James O., and Clarke Olney, eds. Letters of Caroline Norton to Lord Melbourne. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1974.

Olney, Clarke. "Caroline Norton to Lord Melbourne," in Victorian Studies. Vol. 8, no. 3, 1965, pp. 255–262.

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

Smith, Charles Eastlake, ed. Journals and Correspondence of Lady Eastlake. London: John Murray, 1895.

Ziegler, Philip. Melbourne: A Biography of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. London: Collins, 1976.

suggested reading:

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

Stone, Lawrence. The Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

D. E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England

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Norton, Caroline (1808–1877)

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