I’ve often written about fascinating historical figures whom I met through my passion for antique photographs (some of them are in the list at right under “The Story behind the Photograph”.) This time I met Caroline Norton through a framed engraving I bought for a few dollars at a yard sale.
On the back of the frame was a typed piece of paper saying: “Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton was the granddaughter of [playwright] Richard Sheridan. She was a major Victorian campaigner for women’s rights and a poet and a playwright. She wrote several pamphlets on the property and custody rights of women in response to her divorce experience. She was influential in the passage of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839 and later the overhaul of the divorce and property laws.”
When I turned to Google, I learned a lot more about this British society beauty’s tragic history, enduring physical abuse from her husband and separation from her young children in a time when no woman could sue for divorce for any reason, nor could she testify against her husband, because she belonged to him. All the money of a married woman—even income that she earned herself—belonged to her husband.
Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808 – 1877) was the middle of three sisters in London society, all so beautiful and accomplished that they were called the “Three Graces.” Although their mother came from titled aristocracy, their father died in South Africa when Caroline was nine, leaving his family penniless. His daughters knew they had to marry well as soon as they were launched into society.
Caroline’s sisters married a duke and a baron, but Caroline, at the age of 19, married the Hon. George Norton, a barrister and M. P. and the younger brother of a Lord. She was 19 and he was 26.
Caroline and her husband had opposite political views and he disliked the fact that she was clever, wrote poetry and prose and was known for her beauty, wit and political connections, yet he encouraged her to use those connections to advance his career. Thanks to her influence with one of her well-placed friends—the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, in 1831 Norton was made a Metropolitan Police Magistrate with an income of 1,000 pounds a year.
From the start of the marriage George Norton was given to violent fits of drunkenness and abused Caroline both physically and mentally. She gave birth to three boys, but miscarried a fourth child after a savage beating.
She poured her energy into writing poetry and prose to find solace and make some money, and her novels in 1829 and 1830 were well received.
The beatings continued, and after she miscarried their fourth child in 1835, Caroline took her three young boys and moved in with her relatives while her husband spent time with a wealthy cousin of his, Margaret Vaughan.
Caroline and Norton had a quarrel about where the children would spend Easter, 1836, and when Caroline left the house to talk to her sister, Norton sent the children to his cousin Margaret Vaughan and told the servants not to let Caroline back in.
According to the law of the time, the father had legal control of the children, no matter what the mother wanted, and he also by law owned the house and all his wife’s belongings including her manuscripts, clothing and personal correspondence.
On May, 1836, George Norton brought a suit against Lord Melbourne, who was now England’s Prime Minister, for “Criminal Conversation” with his wife. Norton planned to eventually sue Caroline for adultery and he also demanded 10,000 pounds from Lord Melbourne in damages.
The suit caused a scandal, tarnished Caroline’s reputation for life and almost brought down the Melbourne government. It went to trial, but Caroline had no legal identity apart from her husband and could not attend the trial nor testify.
At the end of the trial, on June 23, 1836, the jury unanimously decided in favor of Lord Melbourne. After the trial, Caroline talked to lawyers to see if she could divorce George Norton, but she learned she could not. A husband could sue for divorce, but a wife could not, and the only grounds were the wife’s adultery. Since the court had decided Caroline was not guilt of adultery, she could not be divorced from her husband. Furthermore, George Norton had complete legal custody of their children.
Caroline decided to change the law and lobbied people she knew in government to reform custody laws. Parliament eventually introduced a bill to give mothers the right to appeal for custody of children under seven years old. She also wrote political pamphlets advocating change in custody law. In 1839 Parliament passed the Infant Custody Bill allowing mothers to appeal for custody of children under seven and access to children under sixteen.
Nevertheless, her husband figured out how to keep Caroline away from her children—by sending the boys to Scotland where the laws of England didn’t apply. In 1842 their youngest child, William, fell from a horse while riding alone and eventually contracted blood poisoning, according to Caroline because his wounds weren’t properly treated. When it was clear he was dying, Norton sent for Caroline but the ten-year-old died before she could reach him.
Caroline continued to write pamphlets advocating social justice for women and changes in divorce laws, and listing her own difficulties with her husband. “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 carry her away by force,” she wrote, and “Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of my new home intolerable as the anguish of death…what I suffered respecting those children, God knows…under the evil law which suffered any man, for vengeance or for interest, to take baby children from the mother.”
Because of Caroline’s efforts, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act in 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870.
An article in “A Celebration of Women Writers” says of Caroline Norton, “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.” That is why Caroline wrote: “I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence.
George Norton died on March 20, 1875, freeing Caroline, then 67 years old, to marry again. Two years later, on March 1st, 1877, she married Sir Willliam Stirling-Maxwell, who had been a good friend to her for 25 years. She took ill and died three months later.