On this day in history : 22nd March 1808 – The birth of author, social reformer and feminist Caroline Norton, who campaigned for women’s rights in Victorian England….

Caroline Norton – Public domain

Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan in London, Caroline was the granddaughter of Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinkley Sheridan…. Her father was Thomas Sheridan, a soldier and her mother was Scottish novelist Caroline Henrietta Callender…. Tragically Thomas died in 1817 whilst serving in South Africa – he left his family virtually penniless….

Caroline was the second of three daughters, all known as beauties and sometimes referred to as ‘The Three Graces’…. Caroline herself was a high-spirited girl and quick of tongue…. Her mother, finding it difficult to control her, packed her off to boarding school in Shalford, Surrey when she was 16….

Some of the girls attending the school were invited to Wonersh Park, the home of local landowner William Norton, Lord Grantley…. It was here that Caroline caught the eye of Lord Grantley’s younger brother, George Norton…. He made up his mind there and then that he was going to marry her…. He wasted no time in writing to her mother….who whilst keen to see her daughter married off, insisted that they wait for three years…. The marriage took place in 1827, she was 19 and not overly happy about the union but agreed as she was all too aware of her family’s continuing financial difficulties….

The marriage was a disaster from the start…. He was somewhat dull, jealous – and a little dim…. She was bright, quick-witted and flirtatious…. They were also completely incompatible in their political views…. Norton was a hardline Tory – and MP for Guildford – whereas Caroline had liberal tendencies and like her grandfather she supported the Whigs…. Because she dared to voice her opinions she suffered regular, savage beatings at the hands of her husband….

Caroline buried herself in her writing…. She had shown a gift for verse from an early age…. It was two such pieces, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ in 1829 and ‘The Undying One’ in 1830, that led to her being appointed editor of the publications ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine’….thus giving her some financial independence…. She counted amongst her close friends influential people, such as Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney, Fanny Kemble and the then Home Secretary Lord Melbourne….

Portrait engraving of Caroline from one of her books – Tucker Collection – New York Library Archives – Public domain

Caroline finally left her husband in 1836…. Norton retaliated by accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne…. It was a friendship he had initially encouraged – for his own gains…. Having lost his Conservative seat Norton had hoped that by using her friendship with Melbourne she could secure him a highly-paid government post…. Caroline and Melbourne, a widower who liked the ladies, were to become the subject of gossip – something Norton had in the beginning turned a blind eye to…. But once his wife had left him he sued Melbourne for seducing her…. He lost the case but Caroline’s reputation was in tatters…. To add to her misery Norton denied her access to their three young sons, Fletcher b.1829, Brinsley b.1831 and William b.1833…. Caroline’s battle against her husband for access to her boys eventually led to the Infant Custody Bill, 1839….

Norton then tried to claim the money she earned from her writing…. This prompted her to write to Queen Victoria, as part of a campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce…. The letter was published and became influential in helping the Marriage and Divorce Act 1857 succeed….

Watercolour sketch of Caroline by Emma Fergusson, 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – Image : Stephencdickson – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Caroline herself was refused a divorce by her husband – she was not released from the legality of the marriage until his death in 1875…. Two years later, in March 1877, she married her old friend of 25 years, Sir William Stirling Maxwell, the Scottish historical writer and politician…. Sadly only three months later, on the 15th of June 1877, Caroline was to die….

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