Caroline Norton: Fighting Against Injustice

Caroline Norton was born in London on 22 March 1808 to actor, solider, and colonial administrator Thomas Sheridan and his novelist wife, Caroline Henriette Callander. In 1817, the same year that Madame Récamier’s good friend, Madame de Staël died, Thomas also died. His family was then left penniless. Luckily, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, an old friend of Caroline’s grandfathers, came to the rescue by arranging for her family to live at Hampton Court Palace in a “grace and favour” apartment, where they remained for several years.

Caroline Norton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caroline had two sisters. The three Sheridan girls were endowed with great beauty and also known for their accomplishments. This resulted in them being referred to collectively as the “Three Graces.”

Caroline’s older sister was Helen. She was a songwriter who married Price Blackwood, the 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye. Caroline’s younger sister, Georgiana, was considered the prettiest of the three girls. She married Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset in 1830.

As to Caroline, she married George Chapple Norton, barrister and M.P. for Guildford in 1827. George and Caroline could not have been less suited for one another. She was witty, gregarious, and head-strong whereas he was boring, extremely private, and disliked anyone clever. They were also opposites when it came to politics. She supported the Whigs, and he was a Tory member of Parliament for Guilford.

George was also insecure, jealous, and possessive and was given to violent fits of drunkenness. Soon after their marriage he began mentally and physically abusing Caroline. In response to his controlling behavior, Caroline openly flirted with men, particularly with men in the Whig party, which further incensed George. To make matters worse, he proved to be an unsuccessful barrister and money was a constant source of bitterness and dissension between the two.

In the early years of her marriage, Caroline Norton used her beauty, wit, and political connections to establish herself as a major society hostess. However, her unorthodox behavior and candid conversations made her as many friends as it did enemies. Despite George’s intense jealous over Caroline, he Interestingly encouraged to use her connections to benefit himself. He wanted to advance his career and it was entirely due to her efforts that he was became a Metropolitan Police Magistrate in 1831.

As Caroline Norton became more and more unhappy in her marriage, she sought solace and emotional release by writing prose and poetry. Her first book published in 1829, The Sorrows of Rosalie, was popular and well received. It resulted in her producing a romance novel a year later. It was titled The Undying One. Unfortunately, despite receiving great satisfaction from her literary endeavors, she remained unhappily married.

By the time she was pregnant with her third son in 1832, George’s emotional and physical abuse had increased. Two years later Caroline’s family was so disgusted with his bad behavior, they refused to see or talk to him. Caroline became pregnant a fourth time in 1835 but suffered a miscarriage after George beat her severely. To protect herself and to ensure the security of her children she began to spend more and more time with relatives. In the meantime, George began to visit his wealthy cousin, Margaret Vaughan.

Caroline Norton - drawing

Drawing of Caroline Norton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caroline claimed the final confrontation with George happened in 1836 when a disagreement broke out over where the children should spend Easter. According to her, George became so enraged over the issue he sent the children to Margaret and ordered the servants to prevent Caroline from entering their house. There was nothing Caroline could do. She was a woman. Everything belonged to him. She had no rights to anything, including the children. Moreover, by this time she was fed up with his abusive behavior. Caroline later noted that she left him because of his violence towards her and noted that she reported his abusive behavior to authorities. She also mentioned that his bad behavior was also “brought before police-courts” in 1833 and 1835.

Despite having no rights to her children, Caroline Norton was attempted to change the laws so that she and other women could see their children. For instance, she wrote numerous pamphlets of “great force” that argued for the natural rights of mothers to have custody of their children. The idea of reform related to child custody was already a topic among parliamentarians and because of her untiring campaigning the Custody of Infants Act of 1839 was passed. It permitted mothers to petition the courts for custody of their children up to the age of seven.

Unfortunately, the new law did nothing to restore Caroline’s rights to her children. That was because the new law was only valid in England, Wales, and Ireland. George knowing this sent his boys to Scotland where the law did not apply. Thus, once again he foiled Caroline’s attempts to be see and be with her sons.*

George also wanted to prove that Caroline had committed adultery during their marriage. In fact, that was the reason he cited for Caroline wanting a divorce. The person he named as her lover was her close friend William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister at the time. That allegation was not true but George attempted to blackmail Lord Melbourne for £10,000. As Lord Melbourne had done nothing wrong and Caroline and he were not having an affair, he refused to be blackmailed, and so George sued him in court.

Lord Melbourne. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even though Lord Melbourne thought George a “stupid brute,” he at one point insisted that Caroline return to her husband. Supposedly, part of his reasoning was that the dispute between Caroline and George was too public and too ugly. Caroline must have been crushed by his reasoning. Fortunately, however, Lord Melbourne quickly changed his mind and told her he completely understood why she left George.

Lord Melbourne also once commented on how Caroline responded to George during the divorce and what he saw as the problem. He stated:

“From the beginning, your anxiety to prevent publicity has induced you to apply to him too much. Every communication elates him and encourages him to persevere in his brutality. You ought to know him better than I do, and must do so. But you seem to me to be hardly aware what a gnome he is, how perfectly earthly and bestial. He is possessed of a devil, and that, the meanest and basest fiend that disgraces the infernal regions. In my opinion he has made this whole matter subservient to his pecuniary interest.”[1]

The 9-day trial brought by George against Lord Melbourne did not end in George’s favor. He lost his case. Several years afterward, the Carlisle Journal concluded the following:

“[T]he Hon. G.C. Norton sought to recover, in the Court of Common Pleas, damages from Lord Melbourne … for alleged criminal conversation with Mrs. Norton. The case excited throughout the country the most intense interest, not more from the social position and antecedents of the principal persons concerned than from the strong presumption, which the result went far to confirm, that the plaintiff was the cat’s-paw of certain Tories of that day-of certain ‘cognizing, cozening knaves’ behind the scenes, who devised the slander for the purpose of turning Lord Melbourne out of office. The accusation, as many of our readers will remember, rested upon the testimony of discarded servants of infamous character. Whether they were suborned to perjury, as was strongly suspected at the time, it were bootless now to inquire; suffice it that the evidence they gave was an outrage upon all probability and a libel upon human nature-that the jury disbelieved it―and that the conspiracy against Lore Melbourne was defeated by a verdict in his favour.”[2]

Despite George losing his case against Lord Melbourne, the surrounding publicity caused by his accusations resulted in Caroline’s reputation ultimately being ruined. Furthermore, her and Lord Melbourne’s friendship was destroyed. The associated scandal also practically brought down the government. That was because George’s accusations were part of bigger plot by the Tories to rid themselves of Lord Melbourne and the Whig government.

During George and Caroline’s lengthy separation there were points where the couple attempted to reconcile.** Somehow those attempts always proved futile. Moreover, despite George losing his case against Lord Melbourne, George continued to try to do everything in his power to bend his wife to his will and have his way.

One way he attempted to control his wife was to go after her literary earnings. He wanted her to be reliant on him financially. Unfortunately, he was successful in arguing that her wages belonged to him. Of his rights to the money she earned, she later stated:

“[My writing] was meant to enable me to rouse the hearts of others to examine into all the gross injustice of these laws, to ask the nation of gallant gentlemen whose countrywoman I am, for once to hear a woman’s pleading on the subject. Not because I deserve more at their hands than other women. Well I know, on the contrary, how many hundreds, infinitely better than I―more pious, more patient, and less rash under injury―have watered their bread with tears! My plea to attention is, that in pleading for myself I am able to plead for all these others. Not that my sufferings or my desserts are greater than theirs, but that I combine, with the fact of having suffered wrong, the power to comment on and explain the cause of that wrong, which few women are able to do. Meanwhile … my husband has a legal lien on the copyright of my works. Let him claim the copyright of this!”[3]

Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Caroline Norton was receiving no support from her husband at time. Without being able to claim her earnings, she decided to get even with her husband and began charging large amounts for goods in his name. When creditors came to collect, she told them to see her husband. In response to the unwanted bills George ran an advertisement in the Times that was summarized in the Staffordshire Advertiser:

“Caroline Elizabeth Sarah, his wife, having on the 30th March 1836, left him, her family, and home, and continued to live apart; and that having provided for her separate maintenance a certain annual allowance, which she has refused to accept; and she having subsequently contracted debts for articles of luxury, for some of which actions of debt have been brought against him, (Mr. Norton) he gives notice that he will not be answerable for any debts she may have contracted since the 30th of March, 1836.”[4]

By 1853, George still was still seeking revenge and the couple were still quarreling. At the time her mother had died and left her an inheritance. Of this situation Caroline wrote:

“Our quarrel is whether I shall, or shall not, be compelled to cede a portion of my mother’s bequest. I refuse; Mr. Norton insists. I rashly count on being certain to obtain a compulsory fulfilment of our agreement, which I imagined to be binding. I find myself, on my return to England, without funds to meet my English creditors. I stopt one action against my husband at my own expense. I wrote to Mr. Norton’s own solicitor, in the forlorn hopes that Mr. Norton is acting against advice. I come into court against my will, upon subpoena, compelled to appear to prove the debt and agreement. Mr. Norton meets me there, in person and by counsel, once more to fight his battle against me with cruel treachery, once more to raise the ghost of that departed slander, and to contrive the whole shall believe … that Lord Melbourne was again the subject of our quarrel; that some pledge, stipulation, or promise was made and broken by me, and that is Mr. Norton’s excuse of this breach of convenant. I rebut that imputation on oath and by prove facts; and Mr. Norton publishes in the Times newspaper two columns of abuse of the dead and living, including coarse anecdotes of the mother of his grown-up sons, which even if true (which they are not), he himself dates back to the times when he had an ‘only child’―that is 20 years ago. Shall the verdict not once more be against him. … [Moreover] my husband, who pretends to have loved me so tenderly, and thrown me off so completely … [has] maltreated me … wrote letter after letter, endeavouring to arrange for our living together again … [but then says] ‘You have got a legacy from your mother; share it with me, or I will force you to share it by non-payment of what I owe you.’”[5]

Amidst the fighting Caroline Norton continued to campaign for women’s rights. In 1854 she published the “English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century.” A year later, she also wrote “A Letter to Queen Victoria on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill” pleading for reforms for women. Although Caroline’s once good friend, Lord Melbourne, opposed her ideas, she found support from Queen Victoria who scolded Melbourne for his contrary opinion.

Caroline did not give up in her cause. In fact, because of her tireless campaigning for women’s rights the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was passed. It was a huge step forward for women and created significant changes for them. These reforms meant women could make contracts, receive maintenance per court order, retain their own earnings, and inherit and bequeath property.

In 1849, artist Daniel Maclise finished his fresco of Justice in the House of Lords. Maclise had chosen Caroline Norton as his model because she was viewed by many people as a victim of injustice. However, although Caroline had fought for women’s rights, she had no interest in supporting or pursuing women’s suffrage and she was not involved in that movement, which began in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the 1840s, Caroline Norton began having a 5-year affair with a prominent Conservative politician named Sidney Herbert. Their relationship ended when he married another woman in 1846. Her next relationship was with author George Meredith, who died in 1875. A few years later, in March of 1877, she wed Baronet Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a historical writer, politician, and old Scottish friend. Newspapers at the time fleetingly mentioned their nuptials.

Caroline’s husband, William Stirling-Maxwell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Three months later, on 15 June, Caroline died in London. Several brief comments about her demise were published in various newspapers, along with a rather lengthy mention in the Belfast Telegraph that stated:

“There are few place in which the spirit of true poetry exists in the United Kingdom that will not fail to give a sense of pain in the departure of Caroline Elizabeth Norton. … Mrs. Norton … inherited all the genius of a family that was illustrious by the splendour of its ability … The life of Caroline Norton … was not an altogether happy one. … she unhappily made an unfortunate matrimonial choice, and ultimately became the victim. The police magistrate, who had daily before him crime and cruelty, was unable to comprehend the tender sensibilities of the poet, and this led to a life of extreme unhappiness. The charges made against Mrs. Norton with regard to her improper intimacy with Lord Melbourne … had never the shadow of foundation. It was the fruit of the most ridiculous jealousy, and it cast a weird gloom over a life that would have been otherwise far more than usually brilliant. … Deprived of her children, we only find Caroline Norton, in some of the sweetest of her poems, bewailing the loss with an amount of tenderness and affection worthy of a true mother. There is something of startling romance … in the departure of this lady, and the family history in connection with it. … It was only the other day that this lady, at the age of almost seventy years, was married to Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, one of the most accomplished writers of the time, and only during a few days enjoyed the honeymoon of advanced life. … Caroline Norton should rest in peace.”[6]  

*She would eventually be allowed to see her sons after their youngest son William died in 1842 because he fell off a horse at one of her husband’s estates.
**Reconciliation attempts happened when William died and again when their son Fletcher died of consumption at the British Embassy in Paris at the age of 30.


  • [1] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, “The Library Table,” December 8, 1909, p. 4.
  • [2] Carlisle Journal, “Caroline Norton,” August 26, 1853, p. 5.
  • [3] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, p. 4.
  • [4] Staffordshire Advertiser, September 9, 1837, p. 2.
  • [5] Carlisle Journal, “The Case of Mrs. Norton,” September 9, 1853, p. 6.
  • [6] Belfast Telegraph, “Remarkable Deaths,” June 16, 1877, p. 3.

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