Caroline Norton

Born: 22 March 1808
Died: 15 June 1877
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton was a poetess. Born in London in 1808, and was the second daughter of Thomas Sheridan and granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her mother, Caroline Henrietta, daughter of Colonel Callander, afterwards Sir James Campbell (1745–1832), was a highly gifted and very beautiful woman, and author of ‘Carwell’ and other novels. The father having died in the public service at the Cape of Good Hope in 1817, the widow found herself in somewhat straitened circumstances, which were, however, mitigated by the king giving her apartments in Hampton Court Palace, whence she subsequently removed to Great George Street, Westminster. Caroline and her two sisters were distinguished for extraordinary beauty, and in at least two instances for remarkable intellectual gifts. ‘You see,’ said Helen, the eldest, afterwards Lady Dufferin, to Disraeli, ‘Georgy’s the beauty, and Carry’s the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not;’ which modest disclaimer, however, was far from expressing the fact. During the lifetime of her sisters, Caroline filled much the most conspicuous position in the public eye. After numerous slight productions, published and unpublished, of which The Dandies’ Rout, written at the age of thirteen, seems to have been the most remarkable, she definitely entered upon a literary career in 1829 with The Sorrows of Rosalie: a Tale, with other Poems. This little volume, enthusiastically praised by the Ettrick Shepherd in the Noctes Ambrosianæ, obtained considerable success, and is typical of all that the author subsequently produced, except that the imitation of Byron is more evident than in the works of her maturity. It has all Byron’s literary merits, pathos, passion, eloquence, sonorous versification, and only wants what Byron’s verse did not want, the nameless something which makes poetry. ‘The first expenses of my son’s life,’ she says, ‘were defrayed from that first creation of my brain;’ and the celebrity it obtained made her a popular writer for, and editor of, the literary annuals of the day, which lived by a class of literature to which her powers were exactly adapted. It is stated by herself that she earned no less than 1,400l. in a single year by such contributions. Some of the most characteristic were collected and published at Boston as early as 1833; they are in general Byronic, but include two, Joe Steel and The Faded Beauty, full of an arch Irish humour, which prove the versatility of her gifts, and indicate what she might have accomplished in quite a different field. Two years before her appearance as an author she had married, 30 June 1827, the Hon. George Chapple Norton, brother of Fletcher Norton, third lord Grantley, a barrister-at-law, who was just completing his twenty-seventh year. According to his own statement, Norton had been passionately in love with her for several years previously; while, according to hers, he had not exchanged six sentences with her before proposing for her by letter. If the marriage was indeed one of affection on either side, it speedily assumed a very different character; and there seems no doubt that, apart from the husband’s coarse nature and violent temper, the causes which gradually converted indifference into hatred were mainly of a pecuniary nature. Norton held only a small legal appointment, a commissionership of bankruptcy, which, according to his wife, he had obtained through the interest of her mother; and, as he does not appear to have had any considerable independent means or professional practice, there seems no reason to question her statement that the family was mainly supported by her pen. Nor is there any difficulty in believing that the husband, pressed by pecuniary embarrassment, urged his wife to exert her influence with her political friends on his behalf; nor, indeed, is it credible that Lord Melbourne, then home secretary, would have bestowed (April 1831) a metropolitan police magistracy upon Norton without very strong inducement from some quarter: Melbourne being thought to be a man of easy morals, and Norton being notoriously unsuited to his brilliant wife, a very delicate situation was created. Miserable domestic jars, of which, it is just to remember, we have only Mrs. Norton’s account, followed in the Norton household, and terminated in an open rupture between husband and wife and a crim. con. action against Lord Melbourne. The trial took place on 23 June 1836, and resulted in the triumphant acquittal of the accused parties, who were not called upon for their defence. Sir William Follett, the plaintiff’s advocate, was careful to make it known that he had not advised proceedings; and in fact the evidence adduced, being that of servants discarded by Norton himself, and relating to alleged transactions of long previous date, was evidently worth nothing. Some notes of Lord Melbourne, to which it was sought to affix a sinister meaning, gave Dickens hints for ‘Bardell v. Pickwick.’ The one point which will never be cleared up is whether the action thus weakly supported was bona fide, or was undertaken at the instance of some of the less reputable members of the opposition in the hope of disabling Melbourne from holding the premiership under the expected female sovereign. Mrs. Norton, of course, strongly asserts the latter view, and it certainly was very generally held at the time. ‘The wonder is,’ says Greville, writing on 27 June, ‘how with such a case Norton’s family ventured into court; but (although it is stoutly denied) there can be no doubt that old Wynford was at the bottom of it all, and persuaded Lord Grantley to urge it on for mere political purposes.’ Lord Wynford, however, formally denied this to Lord Melbourne, and the Duke of Cumberland, who had been accused of having a hand in the matter, made a similar disclaimer. Mrs. Norton had vindicated her character, but she had not secured peace. Her overtures for a reconciliation with her husband were rejected, and for several years to come her life was passed in painful disputes with him respecting the care of their children and pecuniary affairs. She nevertheless continued to write, contributing much to the periodical press. Her powers continued to mature. The Undying One, a poem on the legend of the Wandering Jew, with other pieces, had already appeared in 1830, and The Dream and other Poems was published in 1840. Both were warmly praised in the Quarterly Review by Henry Nelson Coleridge, who hailed the authoress as ‘the Byron of poetesses.’ A passage quoted from The Dream rivals in passionate energy almost anything of Byron’s; but there is no element of novelty in Mrs. Norton’s verse, any more than there is any element of general human interest in the impassioned expression of her personal sorrows. Mrs. Norton had already (1836) proclaimed the sufferings of overworked operatives in A Voice from the Factories, a poem accompanied by valuable notes. In The Child of the Islands (i.e. the Prince of Wales), 1845, a poem on the social condition of the English people, partly inspired by such works as Carlyle’s Chartism and Disraeli’s Sybil, she ventured on a theme of general human interest, and proved that, while purely lyrical poetry came easily to her, compositions of greater weight and compass needed to be eked out with writing for writing’s sake. Much of it is fine and even brilliant rhetoric, much too is mere padding, and its chief interest is as a symptom of that awakening feeling for the necessity of a closer union between the classes of society which was shortly to receive a still more energetic expression in Charles Kingsley’s writings. In August 1853 Mrs. Norton’s affairs again became the subject of much public attention, in consequence of pecuniary differences with her husband, who not only neglected to pay her allowance, but claimed the proceeds of her literary works. These disputes ultimately necessitated the appearance of both parties in a county court. Driven to bay, Mrs. Norton turned upon her persecutor, and her scathing denunciation produced an effect which Norton’s laboured defence in the Times was far from removing. Mrs. Norton replied to this in a privately printed pamphlet, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, which, with every allowance for the necessarily ex parte character of the statements, it is impossible to read without pity and indignation. The story of her wrongs, and her pamphlets on Lord Cranworth’s Divorce Bill, 1853, with another, privately printed, on the right of mothers to the custody of children, no doubt greatly contributed to the amelioration of the laws respecting the protection of female earnings, the custody of offspring, and other points affecting the social condition of woman. From a pungent passage in Miss Martineau’s autobiography, however, it may be inferred that she did not always commend herself personally to her fellow workers in similar causes. In 1862 Mrs. Norton produced the best of her poems, considered as a work of art. In The Lady of La Garaye, founded upon an authentic Breton history, the Byronic note is considerably subdued, and the general effect more resembles Campbell. The gain in dignity and repose is nevertheless purchased by some loss of freshness. The poem was published by Macmillan & Co., in whose magazine her novel of Old Sir Douglas appeared in 1867. She had previously published two novels, Stuart of Dunleath (1851), which appears to contain much veiled autobiography, and Lost and Saved (1863). These works evince more thought and sustained power than her poems, but can only be regarded as the work of an exceedingly clever woman without special vocation in this department. During her latter years she wrote much anonymous criticism, literary and artistic. On 24 Feb. 1875 Norton died. On 1 March 1877, being at the time confined to her room by indisposition, his widow married Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, an old and attached friend. She died on 15 June following. Mrs. Norton had three sons. The eldest, Fletcher, born 10 July 1829, entered the diplomatic service, was attaché at Paris, and was appointed in 1859 secretary of legation at Athens, but died at Paris on 13 Oct. before he could assume the office. The second, Thomas Brinsley, born 4 Nov. 1831, is described as ‘kindly, clever, handsome, but wild;’ he married an Italian peasant girl of Capri, ‘who turned out the best of wives and mothers,’ and in 1875 succeeded his uncle as fourth Lord Grantley. He died at Capri on 24 July 1877, leaving a son, who became fifth Lord Grantley. He was the author of an anonymous volume of verse entitled Pinocchi, published in 1856. Mrs. Norton’s third son, William, was killed by a fall from his pony in September 1842 at the age of nine. Mrs. Norton’s portrait has been frequently engraved, but, according to the editor of Hayward’s Correspondence, no satisfactory likeness either of her or of her sisters exists. She is depicted as ‘Justice’ in Maclise’s fresco in the House of Lords; a copy, with a harp substituted for the balance, is in the possession of Lord Dufferin at Clandeboye House. A portrait by Mrs. Ferguson of Raith is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The portrait of her engraved in Lord Dufferin’s edition of his mother’s poems is from a crayon drawing by Swinton. ‘Mrs. Norton,’ he says, ‘was a brunette, with dark burning eyes like her grandfather’s, a pure Greek profile, and a clear olive complexion.’ Mrs. Norton and Lady Dufferin would have been equally surprised if it had been predicted that the poems of the latter would eventually be preferred to those of the more brilliant sister. Such, however, has come to be the case, and with justice, for the simple lyrics of Lady Dufferin frequently startle by the uncalculated strokes that belong only to genius, while Mrs. Norton’s are always the exercises of a powerful but self-conscious talent. The emotion itself is usually sincere—always when her personal feelings are concerned—but the expression is conventional. She follows Byron as the dominant poet of her day, but one feels that her lyre could with equal ease have been tuned to any other note. Her standard of artistic execution was not exalted. Though almost all her lyrics have merit, few are sufficiently perfect to endure, and she will be best remembered as a poetess by the passages of impassioned rhetoric imbedded in her longer poems. Her social and conversational gifts were great, and were enhanced by her fascinating beauty. She had a bright wit and a strong understanding. Had she married as advantageously as her younger sister, wife of the twelfth Duke of Somerset, she must have played a distinguished part in society, and might have been a considerable force in politics. She was a gifted artist and musician, and set some of her own lyrics very successfully.

All books by Caroline Norton