Caroline Norton, the granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was born in 1808. Caroline's father, Thomas Sheridan, colonial administrator, died when she was eight years old, leaving the family in serious financial problems.
In 1824 Caroline met George Norton, the younger brother of Lord Grantley. Norton, who was Tory MP for Guildford, immediately fell in love with Caroline and proposed marriage. Caroline, who was only sixteen at the time and still at school, refused. Caroline came under pressure from her mother to accept George Norton's offer. Although she never loved Norton, Caroline agreed to help her mother's financial situation by marrying him. Mary Shelley, who knew her well, later recalled: "Had I been a man I should certainly have fallen in love with her... I would have been spellbound, and had she taken the trouble, she might have wound me round her finger. She would guy me... in her prettiest way."
The marriage took place in 1827 when Caroline was nineteen. She later recalled: "We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion. This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment."
This violent behaviour continued: "Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of when he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to the door. Mr. Norton locked it, and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards."
Caroline had three children, Fletcher (1829), Brinsley (1831) and William (1833). The marriage itself was a disaster. Caroline did not respect her husband finding him dull and lazy. Caroline did not hide her feelings and George responded to her comments with physical violence. On several occasions George Norton had to be restrained by the servants from inflicting serious physical damage.
The couple disagreed intensely on virtually all the main political issues of the day. Caroline, like her grandfather, was a Whig who favoured extensive social reform. George Norton was a hard-line Tory who had opposed measures favoured by Caroline such as Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform.
Caroline Norton had always been interested in writing and in 1829 her long poem The Sorrows of Rosalie was published. This was followed by The Undying One in 1830. As a result of these poems, Caroline was invited to become editor of La Belle Assemblee and Court Magazine . Her close friends during this period included Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Mary Shelley, Fanny Kemble, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney and Samuel Rogers.
In the 1830 General Election, Norton lost his seat in the House of Commons. Although the Tories had the most seats, Earl Grey, the leader of the Whigs, became Prime Minister. Norton asked his wife if she could use her contacts with the new administration to obtain for him a well-paid government post. In 1831 Caroline met Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, and he arranged for George Norton to be appointed as a magistrate in the Lambeth Division of the Metropolitan Police Courts, with the generous salary of £1,000 a year.
Lord Melbourne and Caroline Norton became close friends. Melbourne, a widower, had a reputation as a womanizer, and rumours began to circulate about his relationship with Caroline. George Norton heard these stories but did not intervene as he hoped he would benefit from Caroline's friendship with the Home Secretary. Claire Tomalin has argued: "Lord Melbourne was nearly thirty years her senior; his wife (Caroline Lamb) had lately died; and he was a man peculiarly susceptible to the delights of a quasi-paternal relationship. Caroline Norton offered him beauty, charm, a sharp interest in everything that interested him and something like an eighteenth-century sense of fun; more, she idealized him for his urbanity, his power, wealth and well-preserved good looks."
George Norton continued to beat Caroline and on a couple of occasions she briefly left her husband but always returned for the sake of the children. Under the terms of the law at that time, the children were his property, and if she left the family home, he had the power to deny her access to her three sons. Norton complained to Caroline that Lord Melbourne had not done enough for him, especially as regards "certain pecuniary interests". He now began to disapprove of Caroline's relationship with Melbourne. When Melbourne became prime minister in March, 1835, Norton began to leak stories to the Tory press. Between March and June, 1835 a number of articles appeared suggesting that Melbourne was having an affair with Caroline. It was also suggested that other Whigs such as the Duke of Devonshire and Thomas Duncombe had also had affairs with Caroline.
After visiting relatives, Caroline returned to discover that he husband had given instructions that she could not enter the family home. Norton, who had serious financial problems, announced that he intended to sue Lord Melbourne for adultery. Norton approached Melbourne and suggested that he should be paid £1,400 to avoid a politically damaging court case. Melbourne, who denied that he had been having a sexual relationship with Caroline, refused to give Norton any money. Norton now approached the Tory peer, Lord Wynford, about the matter. Wynford believed that a sexual scandal involving Melbourne would bring the Whig government down and advised Norton to bring a suit charging the prime minister with "alienating his wife's affections".
Melbourne offered his resignation but William IV refused to accept it. However, he was advised to break off all contact with Caroline Norton. When it became known that Lord Wynford was responsible for Norton's action against Melbourne, even some Tory newspapers defended Melbourne. One Tory was quoted as saying that the case brought "disgrace to our party".
The court-case took place in June 1836. Two of George Norton's servants gave evidence that they believed Caroline and Lord Melbourne had been having an affair. Three letters written by Melbourne to Caroline were presented in court. The contents of the three letters were very brief: (1) "I will call about half past four". (2) "How are you? I shall not be able to come today. I shall tomorrow." (3) "No house today. I will call after the levee. If you wish it later let me know. I will then explain about going to Vauxhall."
Sir W. Follett, George Norton's counsel, argued that these letters showed "a great and unwarrantable degree of affection, because they did not begin and end with the words 'My dear Mrs. Norton'." The jury was unimpressed with the evidence presented in court and Follett's constant demands for the "payment of damages to his client" and returned a verdict against George Norton before bothering to hear Lord Melbourne's witnesses.
Despite Norton's defeat in court, he still had the power to deny Caroline access to her children. She pointed out: "After the adultery trial was over, I learnt the law as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure. Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control."
Caroline wrote to Lord Melbourne who refused to see her in case it caused another political scandal: "God forgive you, for I do believe no one, young or old, ever loved another better than I loved you... I will do nothing foolish or indiscreet - depend on it - either way it is all a blank to me. I don't much care how it ends... I have always the memory of how you received me that day, and I have the conviction that I have no further power than he allows me, over my boys. You and they were my interests in life. No future can ever wipe out the past - nor renew it."
Caroline wrote a pamphlet explaining the unfairness of this entitled The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father. Caroline argued that under the present law, a father had absolute rights and a mother no rights at all, whatever the behaviour of the husband. In fact, the law gave the husband the legal right to desert his wife and hand over his children to his mistress. For the first time in history, a woman had openly challenged this law that discriminated against women.
Caroline Norton now began a campaign to get the law changed. Sir Thomas Talfourd, the MP for Reading agreed to Caroline's request to introduce a bill into Parliament which allowed mothers, against whom adultery had not been proved, to have the custody of children under seven, with rights of access to older children. The bill was passed in the House of Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords.
Caroline now wrote another pamphlet, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Law of Custody of Infants. A copy was sent to every member of Parliament and in 1839 Talfourd tried again. This time the bill was passed in both houses and the Custody of Children Act became the first piece of feminist legislation passed into law.
Although the law had been passed George Norton still refused to let Caroline see her children. He sent them all to a school in Scotland, knowing that they were now out of the jurisdiction of the English Courts. Norton also paid for people to spy on Caroline in the hope that he could acquire the evidence that she was involved in an adulterous relationship.
In September 1842, eight year old William Norton was thrown from his pony while out riding with his brother. He cut his arm and although the injury was not serious, it was not treated, and he fell gravely ill with blood poisoning. Caroline was eventually sent for but by the time she arrived William was dead. It was only after this tragedy that George Norton was willing to let the two remaining children, Fletcher and Brinsley, to live with their mother.
Caroline was now in a position to spend more time writing. One of the first factory reform poems, A Voice from the Factories (1836) and The Dream and Other Poems (1840) had received good reviews. One critic described her as the "Byron of Modern Poetesses". In 1845 Caroline published her most ambitious poem, The Child of the Islands. Written in honour of the Prince of Wales, the poem warns the infant prince never to forget the poor who are exploited by a privileged upper class.
In 1851 her novel, Stuart of Dunleath: A Story of Modern Times , a story based on her own experiences, was highly praised by the critics. In the novel she condems adultery and it is claimed that when a man burst into her bedroom with the words "adultery is a crime, not a recreation". Claire Tomalin has argued that "she was so disappointed and disgusted with her experience of sex within marriage as to lack any wish at all to embark on extra-marital ventures of that kind."
George Norton was upset by his wife's literary success and decided to once again employ people to look into her activities. Norton discovered that when Lord Melbourne died in 1848 he had left a small legacy to Caroline. Legally, this money belonged to Caroline's husband. So did the £480 a year that Caroline's mother had left her when she died in June, 1851. George Norton used the information to resurrect his claims in The Times that Melbourne had been having an affair with his wife.
When Caroline Norton refused to hand over her legacies to her husband, he refused to pay the sum agreed for the upbringing of their two sons. Caroline now returned to campaigning for a change in the laws that discriminated against women. This included the pamphlets English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and A Letter to the Queen on Lord Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (1855). Partly as a result of her efforts, Parliament in 1857 passed the Marriage and Divorce Act. After the success of her campaign, Caroline returned to writing novels. This included Lost and Saved (1863) and Old Sir Douglas (1867).
For over twenty-five years Caroline had been a close friend of Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. However, George Norton refused to give his wife a divorce and so was prevented from living with him. This situation changed when George died and in 1877 Caroline Norton, now aged 69, married Stirling-Maxwell. Unfortunately, Caroline died three months later.
We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that "I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion." This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment.
Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of when he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to the door. Mr. Norton locked it, and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards.
As to petitioning, no one dislikes begging more than I do, especially when one begs for what seems mere justice; but I have long observed that though people will resist claims (however just), they like to do favours. Therefore, when I beg I am a crawling lizard, a humble toad, a brown snake in cold weather. My meaning is, that if one asks at all, one should rather think of the person written to than one's own feelings. Do not write as "the daughter of the late Mr. Godwin". Press not on the politics of Mr. Godwin (for God knows how much gratitude for that ever survives).
I still feel stunned by this sudden blow. He died conscious; he prayed, and asked for me twice. He did not fear to die, and he bore the dreadful spasms of pain with a degree of courage which the doctor says he has rarely seen in so young a child. It is not in the strength of human nature not to think, "This might not have happened had I watched over them!". My poor little spirited creature was too young to rough it alone, as he was left to do; and this is the end of it! When I first came down Mr. Norton was in bitter distress, and he comforted me with promises for the other boys - for those that remain. But his impressions are so weak and so wavering that I only tremble.
After the adultery trial was over, I learnt the law as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure. Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control.
My youngest child, then a boy of eight year old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbour. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week - indeed to be at death's door - before he sent to inform me. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said "I am here - is my boy better?" "No", she said "he is not better - he is dead." And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined."
Lord Melbourne was nearly thirty years her senior; his wife (Caroline Lamb) had lately died; and he was a man peculiarly susceptible to the delights of a quasi-paternal relationship. Caroline Norton offered him beauty, charm, a sharp interest in everything that interested him and something like an eighteenth-century sense of fun; more, she idealized him for his urbanity, his power, wealth and well-preserved good looks. "Dearest Lord," she wrote when they were apart; or "Will of the Wisp", when his expected letter failed; "Pet Lamb", she told him, was her sister's name for him. And he wrote to her, "I have been in despair today at not seeing you."
Crisis came in 1836 when the petty but violent quarrels between Mr and Mrs Norton - unconnected with Lord Melbourne - became too much for either of them to bear, and she left home. George removed her three sons and, probably egged on by Tory advisers, brought a suit against the Prime Minister for criminal conversation (i.e., adultery) with Caroline. She found herself deprived of her children, whom she loved passionately, and equally deprived of Lord Melbourne, who, from the moment scandal threatened, withdrew, advising her (by post for the most part) to return to her husband, terrified lest she should try to compromise him.
The English have tended to associate divorce with dangerous social experiment, feminism and revolution, particularly since the French legalized it for a short, heady period in 1792; it did not pass unremarked that three quarters of the petitions were instituted by wives. One of the subtexts of Lawrence Stone's engrossing historical survey is that marital misbehaviour has always been all right for men, and especially rich men. The history of divorce is largely the history of the double standard; when, in the 1850s, there was talk of making adultery into a criminal misdemeanour, and Gladstone insisted that it should apply to husbands as well as to wives, the proposal was dropped like a scalding poker. It's when women refuse to be patient Griseldas, and when the poor look for redress for domestic wretchedness, that moralists begin to preach and warn.