A Scandalous Woman : the story of Caroline Norton – Alan Chedzoy

Reading Caroline Norton’s poetry a while ago made me curious about her life and, as I had this biography on the tbr shelves, I thought it was about time I read it. Especially as the book has been sitting on the shelves since 1994! It just proves my theory that every book on my tbr shelves will have its day. Hopefully most of them won’t wait nearly 20 years for that day.

Caroline Norton was a member of the famous Sheridan family. Her grandfather, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was an actor & playwright. Caroline’s father died young of tuberculosis & her mother was granted a grace & favour apartment at Hampton Court by George IV, an old friend of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, where she brought up her seven children. The family were forced to live frugally but the children adored Hampton Court & their close relationship in later life was fostered here. Caroline & her sisters, Helen & Georgiana, grew up beautiful, witty but unfortunately, poor. Knowing that they had to marry well, Helen & Georgiana were fortunate in their choices as they had happy marriages. Caroline, at 19, married George Norton, & almost immediately regretted it.

George Norton was a strange man. He first saw Caroline when she was at school. He didn’t speak to her or arrange to be introduced but wrote to her mother proposing marriage. Mrs Sheridan refused as Caroline was so young & they didn’t even know each other. Three years later, after Caroline had been in society for a year & had attracted many admirers but no proposals, George Norton appeared again. This time, Caroline & her mother consented. Norton was related to a noble family. His brother was Lord Grantley but the family were not close & the Nortons disliked Caroline on sight, assuming her to be a fortune hunter. George himself was stolid, unimaginative but with a very definite view of his rights & privileges. He had misled Caroline & her mother about his financial situation but he had no intention of working. He had been admitted to the bar but never seems to have practised law. He expected others – his own family, Caroline’s mother & eventually Caroline herself – to provide for him.

Caroline & George were ill-suited from the beginning. The quarrels began on the honeymoon. Caroline was quick & clever & she was not deferential to her husband. He was infuriated when she argued with him in public or ridiculed his opinions. He soon resorted to violence in an attempt to subdue his wife. They quarreled about everything – money, his smoking, the dreary visits to his family – & Caroline had to learn how to manage him to some extent or her life would have been a continual misery. Mrs Sheridan reluctantly used her connections to get George a sinecure & Caroline began to write poetry which she published to some acclaim. The Nortons had three sons but Caroline was always struggling for autonomy from her insensitive, controlling husband. Caroline’s friendship with Lord Melbourne was also a comfort to her as it gave her a entree to the political & social circles she longed to be a part of.

William Lamb, Lord Melbourne was 30 years older than Caroline. They met in 1831, when he was Home Secretary. Caroline had written to him asking for a job for George & he called on her. Their friendship was immediate. He admired her looks, intelligence & spirit. She was charmed by his old world courtesy & fund of racy stories from the days of the Regency. He was also quite a sad, lonely man. His marriage to Lady Caroline Lamb had been a disaster, culminating in her very public affair with Lord Byron. Their only child, Augustus, was mentally impaired. Soon, Melbourne was calling on Caroline every afternoon. Norton was impressed by his wife’s friends & had no objection to Melbourne’s visits until Caroline decided she had had enough of his cruelty & left him.

This is the background to the famous case of criminal conversation brought by Norton against Lord Melbourne in 1836. Criminal conversation was the legal term used for adultery & was a charge brought by a husband against his wife’s supposed lover. Wives had no legal identity at this time. Man & wife were considered one being & that being was the husband. A woman could not own property, sue or be sued, gain custody of her children. She owned nothing. Any earnings belonged to the husband. All her belongings, even gifts to her from her family, were not hers. When Caroline left her husband, she was forced to leave her children behind. She had to rely on George’s goodwill to be allowed to see the boys & George had very little goodwill. He sent the boys to live with his family in the country or in Scotland. Although he often promised to allow Caroline to see them, she was nearly always disappointed & she had no legal redress.

The court case was a disaster for Caroline & Lord Melbourne, now Prime Minister. None of the three principals appeared in court. The only evidence George had was given by bribed servants. Even though Lord Melbourne was acquitted, the case was so scandalous that, for a time, it seemed the Government might fall. Caroline was ostracized by Society although George’s position was unaffected. Melbourne kept his distance from Caroline & she only had her loyal family to comfort her. Losing custody of her children was the great tragedy of Caroline’s life. It was this that led her to campaign for the rights of mothers to have custody of children under the age of seven. Caroline wasn’t a feminist. She acknowledged the superiority of men & of the husband in marriage but when that marriage had broken down, she believed that mothers should have the right to care for their children. Her sons were only six, three & a half & two years old when she left George for good & for the next few years, she barely saw them. She feared that they were being ill-treated by the Nortons & that they would be taught to hate her. She was right to fear that the boys were being neglected when her youngest, William, fell from his horse when riding unsupervised & suffered only a scratch which turned poisonous. The child died of lockjaw before Caroline could arrive to see him. He was only eight.

Caroline’s persistence in campaigning for the rights of wives led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1839) & the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) which gave women rights over their own property & earnings. Some people said that her motives were entirely selfish but she was tireless, if not obsessive, in pursuing her cause. She wrote pamphlets, poetry, letters to the newspapers. She supported herself by her writing, editing many scrapbooks & gift books of poetry & stories that were very popular in the Victorian period. Her singlemindedness could be uncomfortable & inconvenient for her friends & family at times but she was so outraged by her helpless position that she went to any lengths to achieve her aims. Her wit & cleverness didn’t always make her a comfortable companion but she never doubted the rightness of her cause.

Caroline never entirely recovered her social position but she always had the support of her family & her sons, who were eventually allowed to have contact with her. The breakdown of her relationship with Lord Melbourne was always a sorrow to her but she did have some happiness in later life. She had an affair with Sidney Herbert, best known for helping to promote the reforms of Florence Nightingale & a second, late marriage with an old friend that gave her some happiness at last. Caroline Norton campaigned for her own rights in marriage & as a mother. Her connections & the fame of the Sheridan family helped her cause but it was her own persistence & passion that led to her eventual triumph. She may not have been completely satisfied with the outcome for herself as George did all he could to obstruct her even when the letter of the law was on her side but the reforms she was instrumental in achieving benefited many other women in her own time & since.

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