Caroline Norton was an English feminist, social reformer, and author of the early and mid-nineteenth century. She was a major Victorian campaigner for women’s rights and was instrumental in the passing of the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857.
Norton was born in 1808 in London. At the age of eight, her father, Thomas Sheridan died of tuberculosis, leaving behind only a modest pension. Norton’s grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and due to his friendship with the Duke of York, the family were offered a ‘grace and favour’ apartment at Hampton Court Palace. Despite this generosity, they struggled financially.
Norton began to display her literary talent at the age of eleven when writing with her sister Helen. At 15, she was sent to boarding school in Surrey and while there, she visited Wonersh Park, the seat of the local landowner, Lord Grantley. Grantley’s young brother George Norton fell in love with Norton at first sight and expressed his desire to marry her. He was told he must wait three years, and in 1827, Norton was pressured into accepting the proposal of marriage to help her mother’s financial situation. The marriage was doomed from the start, Norton was independent, intelligent and had aspirations for success while her husband was violent, jealous and possessive. He would regularly and viciously physically and mentally abuse her.
Norton’s mother had been assured that George Norton was able to provide for her daughter financially but this wasn’t the case. He was unsuccessful in his career and so, refused to work, forcing Norton to provide for them. Norton established herself as a major society hostess, although her unorthodox behaviour and candid conversation was shocking to the majority of 19th-century British high society, making her many enemies as well as friends. Among these friends was Mary Shelley, notable for creating the first known work of science fiction. She found an escape from her marriage in her writing, and in 1829 her first book ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ was published, followed by ‘The Undying One’ in 1830. These books lead to her appointment as editor of ‘La Belle Assemblée’ and ‘Court Magazine’, which gave her financial independence. That same year, she managed to find her husband an appointment as a magistrate through her family connections.
Norton had three children with her husband, and while pregnant with the fourth was beaten so badly by him that she miscarried. After this she fled to her mother, hoping to gain a legal separation and custody of her sons but she found she had no legal right to her children. Norton realised that English matrimonial laws granted more rights to men than women, in addition to her children, the house and all that was in it, even Caroline’s personal correspondence, clothing, and manuscripts, were legally the property of her husband. Norton was able to live on her earnings as an author until her husband successfully argued in court that her earnings as a writer were legally his, he also stopped paying her a maintenance allowance. In retaliation, she ran up bills in her husband’s name, telling creditors that her husband was obliged by law to pay all her debts. George Norton then abducted their sons, hiding them with relatives and refusing to tell his wife where they were. He then accused her, along with Lord Melbourne, then the Whig Prime Minister, of “criminal conversation’, or adultery. Under the law, a husband could claim damages from the adulterer and he demanded £10,000 (almost £1 million today). Melbourne refused and the case went to court, after nine days the jury decided in Melbourne’s favour but Norton’s reputation was ruined and Lord Melbourne cut off all contact from her.
Norton, still prevented from access to her sons, began her fight to reform the judicial system. She became involved in the passing of laws promoting social justice, specifically those that would grant rights to married and divorced women. Her fight inspired the poems A Voice from the Factories” (1836) and “The Child of the Islands” (1845). Norton’s intense campaigning included a number of polemical pamphlets including ‘ The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father’, in which she argued that under the present law the husband was given the legal right to desert his wife and hand over his children to his mistress. it was the first time in history that a woman had openly challenged this law that discriminated against women. She followed this with ‘ A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Law of Custody of Infants’ and in 1839 the Infant Custody Act was passed. The law allowed mothers to appeal for custody of children under seven, and access to children under sixteen. Norton was still denied access to her children, who had been taken to Scotland where the English laws did not apply. It wasn’t until after the tragic death of her son William that her George Norton finally allowed her custody of her remaining sons.
Norton continued writing, and in 1951 her novel, Stuart of Dunleath: A Story of Modern Times was published, drawing from her own experiences. It gained high praise from critics and inspired yet more jealousy from George Norton, who once again claimed that she had committed adultery with the now-dead Lord Melbourne and attempted to claim a small sum of money Melbourne had left Norton. She refused to hang over the money, and he refused to pay the amount he owned for the upbringing of their sons. Norton threw herself back into campaigning for change in laws that discriminate against women. In 1854 the pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century was published, followed by A Letter to the Queen on Lord Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill in 1855. That same year, Parliament debated divorced reform and she submitted a detailed account of her own failed marriage. All of this provided highly influential and in 1857, the the Marriage and Divorce Act was passed, which abolished some of the inequities to which married women were subject and contained several sections that were closely based on her pamphlet A Review of the Divorce Bill of 1856.
After her successful campaign, Norton returned to writing novels, including Lost and Saved (1863) and Old Sir Douglas (1867). She also provided the inspiration for the author George Meredith’s Diana Warwick, the intelligent, fiery-tempered heroine of his novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885. Norton was unable to benefit from the Marriage and Divorce Act, as her husband refused to a divorce. It was not until his death that she was free to marry her lover Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. Unfortunately, she died three months later in 1877. Norton’s campaigning in the areas of spousal abuse, child custody, matrimonial property, and divorce were continued by Victorian feminists like Barbara Bodichon and Frances Power Cobbe.