Caroline Norton

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Caroline Norton
Caroline Norton (1808-77) society beauty and author by GH, Chatsworth Coll..jpg
Caroline Norton, by Sir George Hayter in 1832
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan

(1808-03-22)22 March 1808
Died15 June 1877(1877-06-15) (aged 69)
London, England
Known forSocial reformer, writer
TitleLady Stirling-Maxwell (1877)
(m. 1827; died 1875)

Parent(s)Thomas Sheridan
Caroline Henrietta Sheridan

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, Lady Stirling-Maxwell (née Sheridan; 22 March 1808 – 15 June 1877) was an English social reformer and author active in the early and mid-19th century.[1] Norton left her husband in 1836, following which he sued her close friend Lord Melbourne, the then Whig Prime Minister, for criminal conversation (i.e. adultery). The jury threw out the claim, but she was unable to obtain a divorce and was denied access to her three sons. Norton's intense campaigning led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870. Norton modelled for the fresco of Justice in the House of Lords by Daniel Maclise, who chose her because she was seen by many as a famous victim of injustice.

Youth and marriage[edit]

Watercolour sketch of Caroline Norton by Emma Fergusson 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland
Portrait engraving of Caroline Norton from the frontispiece of one of her books

Caroline Norton was born in London to Thomas Sheridan and the novelist Caroline Henrietta Callander.[2][3] Her father was an actor, soldier, and colonial administrator, and the son of the prominent Irish playwright and Whig statesman Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his wife Elizabeth Ann Linley.[4][5][6] Caroline's mother was Scottish, the daughter of a landed gentleman, Col. Sir James Callander of Craigforth and Lady Elizabeth MacDonnell, the sister of an Irish peer, the 1st Marquess of Antrim.[7][8] Mrs. Sheridan authored three short novels described by one of her daughter's biographers as "rather stiff with the style of the eighteenth century, but none without a certain charm and wit..."[9]

In 1817, her father died in South Africa, where he was serving as the colonial secretary at the Cape of Good Hope.[10] His family was left virtually penniless.[11] Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, an old friend of her grandfather's, arranged for the family to live at Hampton Court Palace in a "grace and favour" apartment, where they remained for several years.[9]

The combined beauty and accomplishments of the Sheridan sisters led to their being collectively referred to as the Three "Graces".[12] The eldest sister, Helen, was a songwriter who married Price Blackwood, the 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye. Through her, Norton became the aunt of Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who later served as the third Governor General of Canada and eighth Viceroy of India. Her younger sister, Georgiana, considered the prettiest of the three, later became the wife of Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset.

In 1827, she married George Chapple Norton, barrister, M.P. for Guildford, and the younger brother of Lord Grantley.[1][13] George was a jealous and possessive husband, given to violent fits of drunkenness, and the union quickly proved unhappy due to his mental and physical abuse of Caroline.[4][14] To make matters worse, George was unsuccessful in his chosen career as a barrister, and the couple fought bitterly over money.[15]

During the early years of her marriage, Norton used her beauty, wit, and political connections to establish herself as a major society hostess.[5][15] Norton's unorthodox behaviour and candid conversation raised more than a few eyebrows among 19th-century English high society; she made enemies and admirers in almost equal measure.[5] Among her friends she counted such literary and political luminaries as Samuel Rogers, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Trelawny, Abraham Hayward, Mary Shelley, Fanny Kemble, Benjamin Disraeli, the future King Leopold I of Belgium and William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire.[13][16][17]

In spite of his jealousy and pride, George encouraged his wife to use her connections to advance his career. It was entirely due to her influence that in 1831 he was made a Metropolitan Police Magistrate.[18] During these years, Norton turned to prose and poetry as a means of releasing her inner emotions and earning money. Her first book, The Sorrows of Rosalie (1829), was well received.[13][19] The Undying One (1830), a romance founded upon the legend of the Wandering Jew, soon followed.[20]

Separation and Melbourne scandal[edit]

In 1836, Norton left her husband.[1][21] She managed to subsist on her earnings as an author, but George claimed these as his own, arguing successfully in court that, as her husband, her earnings were legally his.[1][22] Paid nothing by her husband, her earnings confiscated, Norton used the law to her own advantage.[23] Running up bills in her husband's name, she told the creditors when they came to collect, that if they wished to be paid, they could sue her husband.[23]

Not long after their separation, George abducted their sons, hiding them with relatives in Scotland and later in Yorkshire, refusing to tell Caroline anything of their whereabouts.[14][24][25][26] George accused Caroline of being involved in an ongoing affair with her close friend, Lord Melbourne, the then Whig Prime Minister.[14][21] Initially, George demanded £10,000 from Melbourne, but Melbourne refused to be blackmailed, and George instead took the Prime Minister to court.[1][5]

Lord Melbourne wrote in a letter to Lord Holland that, "The fact is [George] is a stupid brute, and she had not temper nor dissimulation enough to enable her to manage him."[21] Despite this admission, hoping to avert an even worse scandal, he pleaded with Caroline to return to George, insisting that "a woman should never part from her husband whilst she can remain with him."[21] Lord Melbourne relented a few days later, stating that he understood her decision to leave:

This conduct upon his part seems perfectly unaccountable...You know that I have always counselled you to bear everything and remain to the last. I thought it for the best. I am afraid it is no longer possible. Open breaches of this kind are always to be lamented, but you have the consolation that you have done your utmost to stave this extremity off as long as possible.[27]

The trial lasted nine days, and in the end the jury threw out George's claim, siding with Lord Melbourne.[28] However, the resulting publicity almost brought down the government.[29] The scandal eventually died away, but not before Norton's reputation was ruined and her friendship with Lord Melbourne destroyed.[30][31] George continued to prevent Caroline from seeing her three sons, and blocked her from receiving a divorce.[1] According to English law in 1836, children were the legal property of their father, and there was little Norton could do to regain custody.[22]

Political activity[edit]

Caroline Norton, detail of a portrait by Frank Stone, circa 1845

Norton was soon faced with an additional tragedy; the death of her youngest son, William, in 1842.[18][32] The child, out riding alone, suffered a fall from his horse and was injured.[14] According to Norton, the child's wounds were minor; however, they were not properly attended and blood-poisoning set in.[32] George, realising that the child was near death, sent for Caroline. Unfortunately, William died before she arrived in Scotland.[18][33] Caroline blamed George for the child's death, accusing him of neglect.[18] After William's death, George allowed Caroline to visit their sons, but he retained full custody, and all of her visits were supervised.[14]

Due to her dismal domestic situation, Norton became passionately involved in the passage of laws promoting social justice, especially those granting rights to married and divorced women.[1][4][22][25] Her poems "A Voice from the Factories" (1836) and "The Child of the Islands" (1845) centred on her political views.

When Parliament debated the subject of divorce reform in 1855, Norton submitted to the members a detailed account of her own marriage, and described the difficulties faced by women as the result of existing laws.

An English wife may not leave her husband's house. Not only can he sue her for restitution of "conjugal rights," but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge...and carry her away by force...

If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself...She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for "damages."

If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband, a vinculo, however profligate he may be....

Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of [my] new home intolerable as the anguish of death...what I suffered respecting those children, God knows ... under the evil law which suffered any man, for vengeance or for interest, to take baby children from the mother.[24][34]

Primarily because of Norton's intense campaigning,[35] which included a letter to Queen Victoria,[36] Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870,[24][25] which she worked on with suffragette activist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon.[37] Her most recent biographer Diane Atkinson notes that unlike in 1839 and 1857, Norton played no part in the campaigning for the 1870 Act.[38] Under the Custody of Children Act legally separated or divorced wives, provided they had not been found guilty of criminal conversation, were granted the right to custody of their children up to the age of seven, and periodic access thereafter. The Act applied in England, Wales and Ireland only. While Norton could have hoped for custody of her youngest son, and access to her older sons who were seven and ten when the Act was passed into law, her husband insisted that her sons stay in Scotland.

The Act gave married women, for the first time, a right to their children. However, because women needed to petition in the Court of Chancery, in practice few women had the financial means to petition for their rights.[39] The Matrimonial Causes Act reformed the law on divorce, amongst others making divorce more affordable, and established a model of marriage based on contract. The Married Women's Property Act 1870 allowed married women to inherit property and take court action on their own behalf. The Act granted married women in the UK, for the first time, a separate legal identity from their husband.[22][40]

In 1849 Daniel Maclise finished his fresco of Justice in the House of Lords, for which Norton had modelled. He chose her because she was seen by many as a famous victim of injustice.[41] Norton's old friend, Lord Melbourne, opposed the reforms she fought for.[42] He was scolded for his opposition by Queen Victoria; the Queen wrote that he defended his actions, stating: "I don't think you should give a woman too much right... there should not be two conflicting powers... a man ought to have the right in a family."[42]

While Norton fought to extend women's legal rights, she wasn't involved in further social activism, and had no interest in the 19th-century women's movement with regard to issues such as women's suffrage.[43] In fact, in an article published in The Times in 1838, countering a claim that she was a "radical", Norton stated: "The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! That is a thing of God's appointing, not of man's devising. I believe it sincerely, as part of my religion. I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality."[44]

Later life[edit]

Norton is said to have had a five-year affair with prominent Conservative politician Sidney Herbert in the early 1840s; however, Herbert married another woman in 1846.[45] In middle age, she befriended the author George Meredith.[46] She served as the inspiration for Diana Warwick, the intelligent, fiery-tempered heroine of Meredith's novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.[45] Norton finally became free with George's death in 1875. She married an old friend, Scottish historical writer and politician Sir W. Stirling Maxwell in March 1877. Norton died in London three months later.[47][48][49]

Family and descendants[edit]

Norton's eldest son, Fletcher Norton, died of tuberculosis in Paris at the age of 30. She was devastated by the loss.[50]

In 1854, her remaining son, Thomas Brinsley Norton, married a young Italian, Maria Chiara Elisa Federigo, whom he met in Naples.[51] Thomas also suffered from poor health, and spent much of his life as an invalid, reliant upon his mother for financial assistance.[51] Despite his ill health, he lived long enough to succeed his uncle as 4th Baron Grantley of Markenfield.[47] Lord Grantley also predeceased his mother, dying in 1877.

His son, John, inherited the title and estates.[52] The 5th Lord Grantley was a numismatist, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Numismatic Society and the British Numismatic Society. He assembled a large collection of coins and also grew orchids. Caroline Norton's grandson caused a scandal in 1879, when he ran off with another man's wife, the former Katharine McVickar, daughter of a wealthy American stockbroker.[53] The jilted husband was the 5th Lord Grantley's older cousin, Major Charles Grantley Campbell Norton.[54] Katharine's marriage to Charles was annulled, and Katharine and John were married that November, five days before the birth of their first child.[55] Despite her scandalous introduction to British society, Katharine went on to become a successful London hostess.[56]


In April 2021 English Heritage announced that Norton was one of six women to be honoured this year with a blue plaque marking her central London home for over 30 years.[57]


Political pamphlets[edit]

  • A Voice from the Factories (1836)
  • Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered (1837)
  • A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill (1839)
  • Letters to the Mob (1848)
  • English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854)
  • A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage & Divorce Bill (1855)
  • A Review of the Divorce Bill of 1856, with propositions for an amendment of the laws affecting married persons (1857)

Poetry collections[edit]

  • The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems (1829)
  • I Do Not Love Thee (1829)
  • The Cold Change (1829)
  • The Undying One and Other Poems (1830)
  • The Faithless Knight (1830)
  • The Dream, and Other Poems (1840)
  • The Child of the Islands (1845)
  • Aunt Carry's Ballads for Children (1847)
  • Bingen on the Rhine (undated) "Copyrighted 1883 by Porter & Coates, Philadelphia"
  • The Centenary Festival (1859)
  • The Lady of La Garaye (1862)


  • The Dandies Rout (1825)
  • The Wife, and Woman's Reward, Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three (1835)
  • Stuart of Dunleath (1851)
  • Lost and Saved, Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three (1863)
  • Old Sir Douglas. Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three (1866)


  • The Gypsy Father (1830)
  • Vathek (based on the novel by William Beckford, 1830) In the Notes & Queries issue of March 2017, 86–95 ("The Lost Manuscript of Caroline Norton's Vathek"), Robert J. Gemmett provides compelling evidence that Norton's manuscript of this play may have survived.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Perkin pp. 26–28
  2. ^ Perkins, pp. 1–2, 5
  3. ^ Reynolds, K. D. "Norton [née Sheridan], Caroline Elizabeth Sarah". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20339. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b c Strauss, p. 141
  5. ^ a b c d Mitchell, pp. 219–221
  6. ^ Jeffares, A. Norman (2004), "Sheridan, Thomas (1775–1817)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, January 2008 ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 1 August 2017 CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ Perkins, p. 1
  8. ^ Cokayne, and others, The Complete Peerage, volume I, page 177.
  9. ^ a b Perkins, pp. 5–6.
  10. ^ Perkins, pp. 2–3
  11. ^ Perkins, p. 4.
  12. ^ Kemble, p. 173.
  13. ^ a b c Scott-Kilvert, p. 614.
  14. ^ a b c d e Caine, p. 67.
  15. ^ a b Woodham-Smith, p. 220.
  16. ^ Perkin, p. 85.
  17. ^ Perkins, pp. 19, 26, 48, 84 and 178.
  18. ^ a b c d Woodham-Smith, pp. 220–221.
  19. ^ Perkins, p. 21.
  20. ^ Perkins, pp. 23–24.
  21. ^ a b c d Mitchell, pp. 221–223
  22. ^ a b c d Yalom, p. 186.
  23. ^ a b Perkin, pp. 28 and 72–73.
  24. ^ a b c Stone, p. 178
  25. ^ a b c Kertzer, pp. 125–126.
  26. ^ Perkin, pp. 26–28 and 96.
  27. ^ Perkins, pp. 83–84.
  28. ^ Mitchell, pp. 223–224.
  29. ^ Mitchell, pp. 221–224, 226 and 228.
  30. ^ Mitchell, pp. 223–224, 226 and 228.
  31. ^ Caine, p. 68.
  32. ^ a b Perkins, p. 166.
  33. ^ Perkins, p. 167.
  34. ^ Yalom, pp. 186–187.
  35. ^ Wroath, John (1998). Until They Are Seven, The Origins of Women's Legal Rights. Waterside Press. ISBN 1-872-870-57-0.
  36. ^ Caroline Norton (1808–1877), BBC, retrieved 23 August 2017
  37. ^ "Barbara Bodichon". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  38. ^ Atkinson, p. 415.
  39. ^ Atkinson, Diane (2012). The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton. Random House. p. 274. ISBN 9781848093010.
  40. ^ Perkin, p. 27.
  41. ^ Dolin, Kieran (22 September 2002). "THE TRANSFIGURATIONS OF CAROLINE NORTON". Victorian Literature and Culture. 30 (2): 503–527. doi:10.1017/S1060150302302079h – via Cambridge University Press.
  42. ^ a b Mitchell, p. 226
  43. ^ Caine, pp. 57, 66 and 68.
  44. ^ Stone, p. 263.
  45. ^ a b Woodham-Smith, p. 221
  46. ^ Mitchell, p. 220.
  47. ^ a b Barron, p. 5.
  48. ^ Perkins, p. 296.
  49. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 30 March 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  50. ^ Perkins, p. 265.
  51. ^ a b Perkins, p. 253.
  52. ^ MacColl pp. 239 and 342
  53. ^ MacColl, pp. 239–240 and 342.
  54. ^ MacColl, p. 239.
  55. ^ MacColl, p. 342
  56. ^ MacColl, p. 240.
  57. ^ "English Heritage announces six more blue plaques to women for 2021". English Heritage. Retrieved 5 April 2021.


  • Alice Acland, Caroline Norton, Constable, 1948
  • Diane Atkinson, The Criminal Conversation is of Mrs Norton. London, Preface Publishing, 2012
  • Barbara Caine, English Feminism, 1780–1980, Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Alan Chedzoy, A Scandalous Woman, The Story of Caroline Norton. London, 1992
  • John William Cousin, A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J. M. Dent & Sons; New York, E. P. Dutton, 1910
  • Fanny Kemble, The Records of a Girlhood. New York, Holt, 1879
  • David I. Kertzer, Family Life in the Nineteenth Century, 1789–1913: The History of the European family. Volume 2. Yale University Press, 2002
  • Gail MacColl and Carol M. Wallace, To Marry an English Lord: Or, How Anglomania Really Got Started. New York, Workman Publishing, 1999
  • L. G. Mitchell, Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848. Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century. London [s.n.], 1854
  • Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England. Routledge, 1989
  • Jane Gray Perkins, The Life of the Honourable Mrs. Norton. John Murray, 1909
  • Diana Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–1844. Volume: 2. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987
  • Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987. Oxford University Press, 1990
  • Sylvia Strauss, Traitors to the Masculine Cause: The Men's Campaigns for Women's Rights. Greenwood Press, 1982
  • Cecil Woodham-Smith, Florence Nightingale, 1820–1910. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1951
  • Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Wife. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002

External links[edit]