It was whilst watching historian Amanda Vickery's brilliant "Suffragettes Forever" programme on BBC Two this week that I learnt about Caroline Norton for the first time, and I was so aghast of not having heard of her battle for equality before, I was determined to research and learn more.
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808-1877) was an English author and social reformer, who's campaign for child custody and conditions of divorce places her as a major Victorian campaigner for women's rights.
She was born into a grand but impoverished family, left almost penniless after her fathers death in South Africa in 1817. So when the offer of marriage from George Norton, a barrister and M.P for Guildford was presented, Caroline accepted against her wishes but for the well-being of her family.
Caroline was described as a "blindingly beautiful, with a quick silver mind and a great gift for comedy" where as her husband was "a dull, plodding second rate lawyer who liked to sure up his sense of importance with alcohol". It was an angry and violent marriage, She later recalled: "We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr.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."
Caroline found solace in her writing. The publication of her verses 'The Sorrows of Rosalie' (1829) and 'The Undying One' (1830) resulted in her becoming the editor of 'La Belle Assemblee' and 'Court Magazine', both providing assuring financial independence. Caroline always said she saw herself as first, a poet.
Portrait engraving of Caroline Norton from the frontispiece of one of her books.
- New York Public Library Archives
During the early years of their marriage, Caroline used her wit, beauty and political connections to establish herself as a major society hostess. But her unorthodox behaviour and candid conversation raised eyebrows amongst the high society. Counted amongst her friends were Samuel Rogers, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Mary Shelley and William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire.
In spite of his jealous nature, Norton encouraged his wife to make the most of her social connections to advance his own career. They also had three children, Fletcher (1829), Brinsley (1831) and William (1833). In the 1830 Norton lost his seat in the House of Commons, he asked his wife to use her connections to obtain 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 Metropolitan Police Courts. Lord Melbourne and Caroline became close friends, but as he had a reputation as a womaniser, rumours began to circulate about their relationship. George was aware of this but did not intervene as he hoped he would benefit professionally from the friendship. He continued to beat Caroline leading her to leave him on a few occasions, but always returning for the sake of the children. Under the terms of English law at the time, the children were his property, meaning he had the power to deny her access if she left the family home.
When Melbourne became prime minister in 1835, Norton began to leak stories to the press about their relationship, and the rumours spread like wild fire throughout society. After visiting relatives, Caroline returned to the family home to discover her husband had given instruction she couldn't enter. Norton (who had serious financial issues) announced that he intended to sue Lord Melbourne. This humiliating court case announced, rather than just accusing adultery, he accused trespass, with having sex with someones wife being blatant trespassing on a mans property. Caroline's life was ruined, she lost her house and possessions but also lost access to her three sons.
George Norton (l), Lord Melbourne (r)
In 1836 Caroline picked up a pen to wage war upon the English legal system. She wrote pamphlets telling the truth of how mothers who are separated from their husbands are denied access to their children, with the aim for giving mothers rights when marriages fell apart. Having had a lawyer for a husband and politician as a close friend, Caroline knew all too well that legal rights need to be secured by act of parliament. She convinced an MP to introduce the bill of child custody in the house of commons, it failed, but she continued her campaign undaunted, she wrote "I endured pain, exasperation, helplessness and despair under the evil law which allowed any man, for vengeance or for interest, take baby children from the mother"
Her protests were instrumental in the passing of the first piece of modern feminist legislation protecting the rights of women - 'The Custody of Infants Act" 1839 permitted mothers to petition for custody for their children up to the age of seven, and for access there after. There was no mention of Caroline Norton within the act itself, but in less than 400 words she had secured the legal rights of mothers forever.
Despite all her efforts, Caroline never got her own children back. George Norton cruelly sent their sons to Scotland where he knew they would be beyond the power of the English courts. But this pioneer campaigner for women's rights was at least commemorated in Parliament, when in 1849 the artist Daniel Maclise was commissioned to paint a mural of The Spirit of Justice in the newly rebuilt house of lords, he asked Caroline to be the model.
She still looks out over the chamber to this day.
In her later life, Caroline continued to run a political and literary salon which was frequented by literati and politicians. However, she never joined or supported the first English feminist group, known as the Ladies of Langham Place. Her health gradually deteriorated, she was particularly devastated by the early death from tuberculosis of her eldest son Fletcher in Paris in 1859. When in 1875 her husband George Norton died, Caroline was legally able to remarry. Two years later she married Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a historical writer and politician, with whom she had been good friends for nearly 25 years. Unlike her first husband, Sir William offered her love, security and comfort. However, in early summer, she fell ill and died on 15 June 1877, at her London home. She was buried in the Stirling Maxwell vault at Lecropt church, near Keir.
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (née Sheridan, later Lady Stirling-Maxwell)
Unknown photographer, 1880s, Albumen print.
Who is your heroine for Women's Day this year? I'd love to know!
Thanks for reading,