Childhood & Early Life
Caroline Norton was born on March 22, 1808, to Thomas Sheridan and Caroline Henrietta Callander. Her father was an actor, soldier and colonel administrator by profession, and her mother was an author. She had two sisters, one elder and one younger.
After the death of her father in 1817, the family faced serious financial crisis. With the assistance from Prince Frederick, an old friend of her grandfather, they found shelter at Hampton Court Palace.
Young Caroline was extremely intelligent, witty and talented. In 1823, she attended a boarding school in Shalford, Surrey. Following year, she first met George Chappal Norton, a shiftless barrister and younger brother of Lord Grantley. Infatuated by the beauty of young Caroline, he proposed marriage almost instantly but the offer was turned down. In 1825, she returned home.
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Caroline along with her sisters was introduced to the elite of the London society in 1825. Though she was beautiful, it was her intellectual disposition that gained a long list of admirers.
At the age of nineteen, she was yet again proposed by Norton, who had been elected as the Member of Parliament and hoped to make a career as a Tory. Though she was not keen on getting married to him, succumbing to the pressure of her mother, she conceded.
On July 30, 1827, she married George Norton, at St George’s Hanover Square, London. The marriage was a complete mismatch, her independent spirit being a stark contrast to his aggressive nature. He was a jealous and possessive husband and often got into violent fits.
Norton’s unsuccessful career further ignited his furious side of which she was a constant victim. Nevertheless, she supported him and used her charm and witty nature to make political connections that in turn helped him advance his career.
She resorted to writing which not only comforted her from her tortured marriage but also brought in financial independence and assistance. Her first publication was a book entitled, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale With Other Poems’ in which she penned a long narrative poem about the downfall of a seduced woman. The book was well received.
Elated with the success of her first publication, she decided to pursue writing professionally. In 1830, she penned ‘The Undying Love’ a romantic poetry about a wandering Jew which was highly praised as well. Same year, Norton lost his seat in the Parliament
In 1831, Norton was appointed for the post of Metropolitan Police Magistrate, a position that was offered purely based on Caroline’s influential connections with Lord Melbourne.
In 1831, she was appointed to the post of editor of, ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine’. Three years later, she served as the editor of English Annual as well.
The couple was blessed with three sons: Fletcher, Brinsley and William. In 1835, they were expecting their fourth child but Caroline had a miscarriage after sustaining violent attacks from Norton. Resultantly distressed, she eloped from her home and sought for legal separation and custody of her sons.
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Norton accused Caroline and Lord Melbourne of adultery and threatened the latter with a court case if he refused to pay the compensation money. Undeterred, Lord Melbourne did not give in to his blackmail which led to the most scandalous lawsuit. After nine days of trial, Norton’s claim was rejected and Lord Melbourne was given a clean chit but in the process Caroline lost her reputation and friendship.
It was while seeking divorce that Caroline realized that as per English law, a married woman had no existence. She lived under her husband’s protection and had no legal rights of her children. Norton did not just block her from receiving divorce but also prevented the children from seeing her. She was also bereft of her earnings which lawfully belonged to Norton.
Post separation, she rose as a literary figure, and extensively contributed in the field of prose, poetry, plays, literary criticism and pamphlets. Some of her famous works of this time include, ‘Voice From Factories’, ‘The Wife and a Woman’s Reward’, ‘The Dreams and Other Poems’ and so on.
She started her campaign against unjust marriage, divorce and custody law in England. She wrote letters to influential newspapers and published several polemical pamphlets that insisted on demanding a reformation in the custody of children law. Furthermore, she lobbied with several MPs to introduce a Bill that would give non-adulterous mothers the right to appeal in the court of Chancery for custody of children less than seven years of age.
Following her extensive campaigning, in August 1839, the Bill that gave mothers the right to fight for custody of children was finally passed by both the Houses and became a law eventually. Ironically, she could not benefit from it as her children were stationed in Scotland where English laws were not applicable.
Unhappy with the inferior status of women, she started campaigning for reforms in the divorce and property laws in England. Through her two pamphlets, she revealed shocking but true facts regarding the rights of married women. Her efforts paid off as Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857 was subsequently passed.
Post political activities, Caroline calmed down a little and took more interest in her literary profession. Her later life was marred by bad health and early death of her eldest son, Fletcher.
In 1875, when her husband George Norton passed away, she was legally free to remarry. She tied the knot with Sir William Stirling Maxwell in March 1877. Unlike Norton, Maxwell proved to be a caring husband who comforted her.