When Lady Caroline was 9 years old her father died, and the family which consisted of her mother, four brothers and two sisters, were left destitute. They existed on the charitable good will of friends and family as was common at the time, and it was necessary for the girls to make good financial marriages. This left a lasting impression on Lady Caroline concerning the position of women within British society.
In 1827 Lady Caroline married the Honourable George Chapple Norton, whom she had first met when aged 16. The match was made by her mother to lift the family out of poverty; Lady Caroline reluctantly agreed but the match proved unsuccessful. George Norton was a failure as a Barrister and Tory MP, and would take his anger out on his wife both physically and mentally, resulting in 1835 of the loss of their fourth child in utero. Such beatings were witnessed by servants and family members. Lady Caroline had a fierce intellect and was a successful society hostess within political circles both in entertaining and in discussing and influencing policy, which caused further conflict with her jealous husband.
Lady Caroline became a published poet in the first few years of her marriage which allowed her a degree of financial independence and enabled her to support her family when her husband was unable to. In 1830 as a result of the success of her second book of poems, Lady Caroline became editor of La Belle Assemblee and Court Magazine and her circle widened to include influential philosophers and writers as well as politicians.
Lady Caroline and her husband separated in 1836. George Norton sued on the grounds of adultery with then Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, with whom she was great friends and whom she had used her influence in her husband’s favour in the past. George Norton lost the case but the damage to Lady Caroline’s reputation was done. At the time, men held all the rights upon couples splitting, and Lady Caroline lost access to her three children Fletcher (born in 1829), Brinsley (born in 1831) and William (born in 1833). George Norton then sought to take the proceeds of her writing, which he again lost.
In 1848 George Norton finally granted a legal separation to Lady Caroline on the grounds that she would mortgage a property giving him the proceeds, through which he would pay an annuity of £500 and not claim further rights to any income she may earn throughout her lifetime. He would still refuse to grant a divorce and she could not sue for one as women were not entitled to do so. When her mother died in 1852 George Norton reneged on the agreement, and the fact they were married gave him the legal right to do so. He would continue this behaviour throughout his lifetime, continually taking Lady Caroline to court to assert his rights.
As a result of George Norton’s court actions, Lady Caroline began to campaign both for women’s rights to access and care of their children and to the financial proceeds of their labours, campaigns which were opposed by Lord Melbourne. She wrote pamphlets which were widely disseminated and was successful in both campaigns, being instrumental in both the passing of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839 and the Marriage & Divorce Act of 1857. Her earlier campaigns and writing also proved vital to the successful passing of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
Sadly, in 1842 William died in a horse-riding accident and it was only at this point George Norton allowed Lady Caroline access to the surviving children. These visits would remain strictly supervised and she was never allowed overnight contact or any say in their upbringing.
Lady Caroline also campaigned for the rights of children of all classes and economic strata, fighting against the exploitation of the poorer classes, as well as the rights of women in English Law. However George Norton continued a campaign of harassment and damage to her reputation, claiming rights to any income including inheritance she might have, to which he was entitled until the passing of the Marriage & Divorce Act detailed above. None of his claims were ever proven, but it was enough to make the accusation to destroy a reputation.
It was not until around 1875 when George Norton died that Lady Caroline became free to wed again. She married close friend Sir William Stirling Maxwell on 1st March 1877, whom she had known for 25 years but with whom no romantic relationship had previously existed. Lady Caroline died on 15th June 1877, a few months after this happy marriage.
‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ (1829)
‘The Undying One’ (1830)
‘Voice from the Factories’ (1836)
‘The Dream and Other Poems’ (1840)
‘The Child of the Islands’ (1845)
‘Stuart Dunleath: A Story of Modern Times’ (1851)
‘Lost and Saved’ (1863)
‘Old Sir Douglas’ (1867)
A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton by Alan Chedzoy (1992, Allison & Busby)
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson