Caroline Norton seemed to always be getting the short end of the stick. When she looked closely at her miserable existence, she noticed a trend: It was always men who were messing up her life. Caroline was tired of it, and she grabbed her greatest weapon to fight for her freedom.
Her weapon was a pen, and with it, she brought down the outmoded and barbaric laws around women’s rights in the Victorian era. But would the changes come fast enough to give her a happily ever after?
1. They Were Artistic
It was in London on March 22, 1808, when Caroline Norton came into this world. Her family was richly endowed with an artistic temperament.
Her mother, Caroline Henrietta Callander, was an author, while her father Thomas Sheridan, was an actor and a soldier. Sheridan was fairly safe when he was on stage. As a soldier, however, tragedy was always just around the corner.
2. They Were Penniless
In 1817, Caroline’s father, as a colonial administrator, took a posting in South Africa. When Caroline was just nine years old, fate dealt her a devastating blow: Her father passed. Losing a father was bad enough, but there was something even worse.
The family lost an income—their only income. Yes, the Sheridan family had no money at all.
3. He Took Pity
Because the Sheridan name carried a lot of respect, it wasn’t long before someone swooped in and rescued them. Prince Frederick, the second son of the king, took pity on the destitute women and provided them with a place to live.
The home was Hampton Court. If the name sounds grand, you haven’t got the right idea. Remember, this home was a favor. The Prince owed them nothing, and he didn’t give them much more than that.
4. It Wasn’t Ideal
Caroline, her mother, and her sisters received what they used to call a “grace and favor” home. There were 69 of these homes packed into Hampton Court. And who else was at Hampton Court? The Sheridan family likely shared their home with retirees who’d been diplomats or servicemen.
I think it’s safe to say the situation was not ideal for three young girls on their road to adulthood.
5. They Were The Graces
In spite of the family’s unusual living arrangement, the three Sheridan sisters blossomed. Because of their beauty and achievements, they got a nickname: the three graces, which was perhaps a nod to their home. Helen, the oldest of the three—and a songwriter—soon married a man with a royal background.
Next, it was Caroline’s turn to tie the knot. Would she be as lucky as her older sister? Not a chance.
6. He Had No Skill
Caroline’s match was George Chapple Norton: a lawyer and Member of Parliament. The couple’s first problem became apparent almost right away. George wasn’t much of a lawyer and, because of this, his income wasn’t great. This led to constant arguments over money, which sometimes turned very angry. The couple’s second problem, however, was much more sinister.
7. She Wasn’t Like Other Women
Not only was George Norton a lousy lawyer, but he was also a drinker—and an angry one at that. George took out his frustrations from his job on Caroline, and she became the focus of his wrath. In addition, he was also very jealous and possessive. He wanted to know where Caroline was at all times.
Many women in this situation, especially at this time in history, would quietly accept what their life was like. Caroline Norton, however, was not like most women.
8. She Was A Monster
In spite of her horrible—and at times dangerous—homelife, Caroline continued to shine. She became known as a “major society hostess” and had friends in both the political and literary world. One of her friends, Mary Shelley, had written the gothic novel, Frankenstein.
It was fitting that Shelley enjoyed Caroline’s company because some people thought Caroline was a monster. They saw her as unorthodox, believing her to engage in scandalous conversations. Well, at least Caroline was making a big splash. Her husband, on the other hand, was just all wet.
9. She Had Two Problems
The way Caroline saw it, she had two problems: She needed money and she had a lot of bottled-up emotions. A thought struck her: Why not write books?
In this way, she could release some of the tensions she felt and make a few extra bucks while doing it. Caroline began putting pen to paper and in 1829, when she was still 21, she came out with a book, The Sorrows of Rosalie. The book—which sees Rosalie mishandled by various men—was quite likely a page torn from Caroline’s own life. But how would the critics respond to a book about how horrible men were?
10. She Rose Through The Ranks
Caroline’s book, The Sorrows of Rosalie, received a good number of reviews—most of them favorable. She followed it up with another book, The Undying One, which also got her noticed. Critics started falling in love with this new author. They even compared her to the poet Lord Byron, which was high praise indeed.
Caroline’s fame soared—and a startling new chapter began.
11. She Made It
In 1832, Caroline made an ambitious move; she became an editor. The job was at The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée which was basically like a Victorian-era Cosmo. She performed in this role from 1832 to 1837. The year before she finished this job, Caroline must have been feeling very pleased with herself.
She was actually making it on her own, which led her to take a very drastic measure.
12. She Wanted Out
Caroline was earning a small amount every year from her writing and editing. But sadly, her life at home hadn’t improved. Her husband was the same as he’d been from the beginning: abusive of her and obsessed with drinking. She looked at her income, and then at her loser of a husband. Caroline suddenly had an idea—a way to get out of this horrible situation.
13. She Escaped
Shockingly, Caroline decided to take the ultimate risk. She walked out on her husband—something not done very often at the time.
She managed to get by on her sparse earnings and was at least away from the horrible monster who made her life unbearable. Thankfully, George could no longer get his hands on Caroline—but he found another way to torment her.
14. She Got A Letter
Caroline was just managing to barely eke out a living on her meager income when she received a letter. It was a notice stating that her husband wanted something from her: all her income. I assume Caroline laughed when she got it. What court of law would allow a husband to take his wife’s small income when that was all she had?
15. She Went To Court
George took Caroline to court and won. A judge actually told Caroline that she had to give all her earnings to her husband—the same one who had treated her so badly. Remember, this is the 19th century, and women’s rights were very limited. How was Caroline going to live? Her only source of income was now going to her husband.
16. She Wouldn’t Give Up
Caroline Norton was no quitter. When her husband took away her income, she did something completely unexpected: She went on a shopping spree. Now, these were the days before credit cards, so when she went to pay for her purchases, she simply told the proprietors to put the bill on her tab—or more precisely: Her husband’s tab.
This round of the fight most definitely went to Caroline. But what George did to retaliate was beyond heartless.
17. He Took Them
During their marriage, Caroline had three sons with George. In a scene taken right out of a modern-day custody battle, George abducted the three young boys and put them somewhere Caroline couldn’t find them. The only difference here was that, once again, George had the court on his side.
The boys belonged to their father, and Caroline could do nothing about it. George, however, wasn’t through tormenting Caroline yet.
18. He Accused Her
Once George had Caroline’s children, he resumed his battle with her. Next, George publicly accused his wife of having an affair. This, however, was no ordinary affair. He said she’d been having a long-term romance with Lord Melbourne—a friend of Caroline’s.
You can tell by Melbourne’s title that he was a big deal in British politics. George was going for the jugular, and he wasn’t worried about who got hurt.
19. He Was After Something
When he accused Caroline of having an affair, George was actually after something he seemed to need a lot of: cold hard cash. He wanted money and Lord Melbourne was not the sort to just hand it over. Lord Melbourne may well have found George’s cheap attempts at blackmail amusing.
When he refused to pay up, however, George took Melbourne to court. Somehow it wasn’t so funny anymore.
20. He Had A Solution
The rumor that George had started about Caroline and Melbourne was not true. The publicity surrounding it, however, could be very bad for Melbourne. To save his own hide, Lord Melbourne did something completely cold-hearted.
He asked Caroline to return to her husband. Melbourne told her that it was his opinion that “a woman should never part from her husband”. So, that was his solution? Send Caroline back to her tormentor? Some friend.
21. He Changed His Mind
It’s not clear what Caroline said to Melbourne—maybe she laid out more blatantly what the sins of her husband were—but Melbourne relented. He had a complete change of heart and finally agreed that Caroline was better off away from George. He said that separation was extreme, but that this extreme case required it.
Caroline had won this round and, better still, she’d kept a certain secret she had safe.
22. She Had A Secret
The truth was that Caroline and Lord Melbourne were just friends—but that didn’t mean Caroline was not having an affair with someone else. Melbourne was the perfect smokescreen for her affair with another prominent man: Sidney Herbert, who was a member of Parliament.
As long as George was chasing after Melbourne, Caroline was safe with Herbert. With the truth carefully secreted away, Caroline confidently went to court.
23. She Was At The Center
Caroline was at the center of the nine-day trial between her husband and Lord Melbourne. At the end of it, it was clear that Melbourne won, but Caroline wound up on the losing side. Her reputation did not survive the scandal, and the rotten cherry on top was that her friendship with Lord Melbourne was essentially over.
That, however, wasn’t all. George still had more venom to dish out to the vulnerable Caroline.
24. She Lost Them
When the dust of the trial had cleared, Caroline received some terrible news: Her sons would remain the property of her husband. Caroline couldn’t believe it and decided to look at her options for appealing this decision.
In 1836, when these events took place, Caroline had exactly zero options. The boys were his, and she had no way to get custody again.
25. He Was In Grave Danger
So, Caroline had to resign herself to the fact that her husband had custody of her sons—he wouldn’t even allow her visits. A few years into this horrible situation, Caroline received a message from her husband. She had to come to Scotland immediately. Her youngest son William was in grave danger.
Of course, Caroline got to Scotland as quickly as she could. But it wasn’t quick enough. By the time she got there, the worst had happened: William had passed. It sent Caroline into a frenzy. She wanted to know what had happened, and she wanted to know every detail.
26. It Was Senseless
Caroline found out the story of her youngest son’s passing. William had gone horse riding without supervision. While alone, he’d fallen off his horse and had an injury. The thing was, the injury wasn’t that serious. What was serious, however, was how badly they treated the boy’s wound.
Because they hadn’t dealt properly with William’s condition, poison had entered his blood. Sadly, the entire episode could have easily been avoided. This event crushed Caroline. There was, however, one ever so small silver lining.
27. She Had To Be Supervised
Caroline’s reaction to her son’s passing must have moved the usually cold-hearted George. After that event, he decided to let his wife have visitation rights to her remaining two sons. He didn’t change the custody—the boys were still his—but Caroline was now permitted to have supervised visits.
Judging by his neglectful parenting, however, I’d say it was George who needed supervision. Finally, Caroline had gotten a break, but there was still more torment coming her way.
28. He Got Restless
Caroline’s life was looking a little better. She had access to her children, and she still had her secret boyfriend, Herbert to cuddle with at night. Sadly, Herbert was getting restless. He wanted to marry Caroline, but George wouldn’t grant her a divorce.
Herbert, in his frustration, found another woman—also an author—and married her instead. George was once again making Caroline’s life miserable, and she was getting sick and tired of it.
29. She Wanted Control
Between her husband, friends, and the courts, it seemed that men were controlling Caroline’s life, and so far it hadn’t done her much good. This led Caroline to become interested in social justice. Her first cause was something close to her heart: the rights of married and divorced women.
Caroline saw that the laws were heavily skewed toward men, and she wanted them changed. When Parliament put the topic of divorce up for discussion in 1855, Caroline was ready to come to the defense of all British women.
30. She Had A List
Caroline had a long list of complaints about the treatment of wives. At the top of it was the fact that a woman could not leave her husband and stay within the law. Caroline went on to tell Parliament that husbands can sue their wives and force them to have “conjugal visits”.
And what if the wife tried to hide with a relative or friend? Well, the rights of the husband in this area were absolutely shocking.
31. She Told Them Her Story
Caroline laid out the rules about a wife’s rights—or lack thereof—in front of Parliament. She said that if a woman tries to hide from her husband, who is seeking forced conjugal relations, the husband has the right to enter any house where she is hiding and take her away by force.
She went on to tell her own story about losing her three sons and then the passing of her youngest. Caroline’s impassioned voice must have moved Parliament—at least just a little bit.
32. She Saw The Injustice
Of course, there were more issues that outraged Caroline. The fact that a wife couldn’t defend herself—or get a lawyer—when her husband took her to court was also on her list. And also the fact that a husband could divorce an adulterous wife, while wives had to simply grin and bear it when their husbands cheated.
Caroline was on a roll, and she didn’t stop with Parliament. She was ready to take her outrage to the top.
33. An Old Friend Became A Foe
Caroline was on a roll. She campaigned fiercely and even sent a letter to Queen Victoria. While Caroline was petitioning for women’s rights, her old friend Lord Melbourne was trying to undo her.
Even though he had come to her rescue when it came to her ex-husband George, Melbourne couldn’t see eye to eye with Caroline on these reforms. He was sure she was going too far, and that he had to stop her.
34. He Got Told Off
Not only was Lord Melbourne unable to stop Caroline, but an important figure also threw a wrench in his plan: the Queen of England. Caroline’s letter to Queen Victoria must have moved her quite a bit. Melbourne had said that women shouldn’t get too much power, but the queen thought he got it all wrong—and told him so.
I’m guessing Caroline must have been very happy with her little bit of revenge. So, what, in the end, was the result? Did the courts turn their backs on Caroline once again?
35. She Won The Right
In 1839, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act which gave women more rights when it came to the custody of children. It wasn’t perfect, but divorced women now had the right to fight for the custody of their children, if they were under the age of seven. Women’s rights to their own children, however, wasn’t the only thing Caroline hoped to improve.
36. She Made It Easier
From her own experience, Caroline knew it was nearly impossible for a woman to get a divorce from her husband, and this was the next change she wanted to see. Caroline wrote a pamphlet outlining why she thought the laws should change.
There was some opposition from politicians who thought Caroline’s changes to the law went against the church, but in the end, the Matrimonial Causes Act gave women an easier—and more affordable—way out of a marriage that had gone wrong. Now that Caroline had changed the country, surely she could now reap the rewards.
37. They Were In Scotland
Caroline’s first task would be getting her two remaining sons back. Surely the Custody of Infants Act would help reunite her with her boys. So far, the Act was law in most of the UK: England, Wales, and Ireland. Wait a minute. Didn’t George have the boys in Scotland?
This fact did not escape George’s knowledge, and he happily kept the children in Scotland where Caroline still had no rights. Caroline would have to wait longer to get custody of her two remaining sons. Well, she still had more feminist issues to fight, didn’t she?
38. She Was Done
Caroline had done so much for women’s rights within a marriage, so you’d expect her to continue the fight with the next logical battle: getting women the right to vote. It turned out that Caroline wasn’t on board for all things feminist. She insisted she wasn’t a radical, and that “the natural position of women is inferiority to men”.
She went on to infuriate feminists by saying that the idea of gender equality was ridiculous. Caroline was through with fighting men. She wasn’t, however, through with writing about them.
39. She Wrote What She Knew
In 1851, Caroline published her novel, Stuart of Dunleath. The story is about Eleanor Raymond, a woman whose fortune is taken by a man. Because of this, Eleanor has to marry a horrible husband who mistreats her. In case readers weren’t sure the story was semi-autobiographical, Caroline threw in a fatal accident concerning Eleanor’s twin sons. This was definitely a case of art imitating life.
So, if Caroline was writing about herself in this novel, I’d like to know one thing: how she saw herself at the end of her life.
40. She Was Doomed
Eleanor of Stuart of Dunleath—who is certainly a stand-in for Caroline herself—has a very depressing end. When she’s finally about to get a divorce from her horrible husband, she has a sudden flash of morality: She can’t go through with the divorce. By the time she is eventually free of her husband, the love of her life has already married someone else. The end of the book is a tragedy.
Eleanor dies of a broken heart. If Caroline envisioned Eleanor’s end like this, what chance did the real Caroline have at a happy ever after?
41. She Made A Friend
Caroline was getting on in years, and she may have given up on romance, but she still craved companionship. In the late 1880s, she met a fellow author, George Meredith and a friendship began. The two became close, and Meredith soon became acquainted with Caroline’s sad life. Don’t forget, Meredith was an author. And what do authors do when they hear a tragic tale?
You got it, they write about it.
42. It Was The Same Story
Caroline had already written a fictionalized account of her life in her own book, but her new friend Meredith was going to give her life story yet another go. In his book, Caroline became Diana of the Crossways. In the 1885 novel, Diana’s friendship with a cabinet minister leads to a scandal—much like Caroline’s friendship with Lord Melbourne did.
So why was Meredith so bent on recounting Caroline’s story? The answer to this question is a real stunner.
43. He Saw Himself
Meredith was certainly writing a book about Caroline’s tragic life, but there was something else. When he began to write the character of Caroline’s brutal husband George, he saw something chilling—he saw himself. It seems that Meredith had been a bit of a George to his own first wife. The book was a sort of catharsis for the author, but what did it mean for Caroline?
Sadly, the heroine of the novel, like in Caroline’s own book, meets a miserable end. Everything seemed to be pointing to Caroline ending up alone and unloved. But she had her sons, didn’t she? Surely they would be with her until the end.
44. She Lost Another
Remember, Caroline had three sons by George Norton. One had passed while in Norton’s custody, and so she had two others. Her eldest son, Fletcher Norton, went to France when he was 30 years old. While there, he met with disaster. He caught tuberculosis and, sadly, passed while in Paris. Caroline was now down to one child. Things were not looking good for her golden years.
45. She Cared For Him
Caroline’s remaining son was Thomas. In Thomas lay Caroline’s hopes for pleasant remaining years to her life—and not the predicted lonely demise from the novels about her life. Sadly, Thomas had health issues. Instead of caring for his mother, Caroline ended up taking care of him, both financially and physically.
Caroline just seemed to never get a break, and it was the men in her life who were making her life miserable.
46. She Got Some News
In March 1875, something happened that was sad for some but incredibly liberating for Caroline. George Norton, the man who had made Caroline’s life an unhappy existence—even after she stopped living with him—finally passed. Caroline was finally free to marry another man.
She was, however, now 67 years old and hardly a blushing bride. One thing we know about Caroline is her determination. She was now allowed to wed, and by god, she would find a husband.
47. She Had A Happy Ending
At this point in her life, Caroline had a friend named Sir William Stirling Maxwell. Maxwell was a Scottish writer and politician. He was also 10 years younger than Caroline. Like Caroline, Maxwell was a widower, and the two became husband and wife. It seemed like a perfect match for Caroline.
Her new husband was creative like her. And the age difference? Well, we can assume that it gave Caroline a slight edge over him. Something she never had over her first husband. It’s fairly safe to say that Caroline got her happy ending. Except for one thing…It was incredibly short-lived.
48. It Was Just Three Months
Most of Caroline’s life had been spent fighting against the men who tried to control her. Her difficult life, however, moved her to fight for more rights for women and she succeeded. When she finally met a man that didn’t want to make her miserable, her lust for life seemed to diminish.
Just three months after she got a husband who would finally be her equal, she passed. It was a lifetime of struggle, for just a few moments of happiness.
49. Her Grandson Was In Trouble
Caroline’s sickly son, Thomas, did eventually get up on his own two feet. He even found an Italian wife and had a child. That child was John Norton—the 5th Lord Grantley, and Caroline’s grandson. In 1879, John got himself into a scandalous pickle.
Not only did he run off with a married woman, but the woman he ran off with was also the wife of his own cousin. Surely this would be the end of both John and his girlfriend Katharine’s public life.
50. It Was Her Legacy
Because of Caroline’s tireless campaigning for marriage reform, her grandson’s girlfriend was easily able to get out of her marriage, and then tie the knot with the man she truly loved—all while carrying his child. Would this scandal be the end of the couple’s position in society? Hardly.
Katharine went on to take London by storm. I don’t know if she knew it or not, but it was all thanks to her husband’s grandma, Caroline Norton.