Biography of Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, Lady Stirling-Maxwell (22 March 1808 – 15 June 1877) was an active English social reformer and author. She left her husband in 1836, who sued her close friend Lord Melbourne, then the Whig Prime Minister, for criminal conversation (adultery). The jury threw out the claim, but she failed to gain a divorce and was denied access to her three sons. Norton's campaigning led to the passage of the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870. She modelled for the fresco of Justice in the House of Lords by Daniel Maclise, who chose her as a famous victim of injustice.

Youth and marriage

Caroline Norton was born in London to Thomas Sheridan and the novelist Caroline Henrietta Callander. Her father was an actor, soldier and colonial administrator, the son of the prominent Irish playwright and Whig statesman Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his wife Elizabeth Ann Linley. Caroline's Scottish mother was the daughter of a landed gentleman, Col. Sir James Callander of Craigforth and Lady Elizabeth MacDonnell, sister of an Irish peer, the 1st Marquess of Antrim. 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...."In 1817, her father died in South Africa while serving as colonial secretary at the Cape of Good Hope. His family was left almost penniless. Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, an old friend of her grandfather's, arranged for them to live at Hampton Court Palace in a "grace and favour" apartment for several years.The combined beauty and accomplishments of the Sheridan sisters led to their being collectively referred to as the Three "Graces". The eldest, 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, later the third Governor General of Canada and eighth Viceroy of India. Her younger sister, Georgiana, seen as the prettiest, later married 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. George was a jealous and possessive husband given to violent fits of drunkenness. The union quickly proved unhappy due to his mental and physical abuse. To make matters worse, George was unsuccessful as a barrister and the couple fought bitterly over money.During her early married years, Norton used her beauty, wit and political ties to set herself up as a major society hostess. Her unorthodox behaviour and candid conversation raised many eyebrows in 19th-century English high society; she made enemies and admirers in almost equal measure. Among her friends were 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. She also claimed in later life to have taken part in the Tolpuddle Martyrs protest march in 1834.Despite his jealousy and pride, George encouraged his wife to use her ties to advance his career. It was through her influence that in 1831 he was made a Metropolitan Police Magistrate. During those years, Norton turned to prose and poetry as means of releasing her inner emotions and earning money. Her first book, The Sorrows of Rosalie (1829), was well received. The Undying One (1830), a romance founded on the legend of the Wandering Jew, soon followed. From 1832 to 1837 she edited The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée. In 1843 she petitioned Sir Robert Peel for the post of Poet Laureate after the death of Robert Southey, but was unsuccessful.

Separation and Melbourne scandal

In 1836, Norton left her husband. She managed to subsist on her earnings as an author, but George claimed these as his, arguing this successfully in court. Paid nothing by her husband, her earnings confiscated, Norton used the law to her own advantage. 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.Not long after their separation, George abducted their sons, hiding them with relatives in Scotland and later in Yorkshire, refusing to tell Caroline their whereabouts. George accused Caroline of involvement in an ongoing affair with a close friend, Lord Melbourne, then Whig Prime Minister. Initially, George demanded £10,000 from Melbourne, but Melbourne refused to be blackmailed and George instead took the Prime Minister to court.Lord Melbourne wrote to Lord Holland, "The fact is [George] a stupid brute, and she had not temper nor dissimulation enough to enable her to manage him." 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." 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.

At the end of a nine-day trial, the jury threw out George's claim, siding with Melbourne, but the publicity almost brought down the government. The scandal eventually died, but not before Norton's reputation was ruined and her friendship with Melbourne destroyed. George continued to keep Caroline from seeing her three sons and blocked her from receiving a divorce. Under English law in 1836, children were the legal property of their father and there was little Norton could do to regain custody.

Political activity

Norton soon faced an additional tragedy; the death of her youngest son, William, in 1842. The child, out riding alone, fell from his horse and was injured. According to Norton, the child's wounds were minor, but they were not properly treated and blood-poisoning set in. George, realising that the child was near death, sent for Caroline. Unfortunately, William died before she arrived in Scotland. Caroline blamed George for the child's death, accusing him of neglect. After William's death, George allowed Caroline to visit their sons, but he retained full custody and all of her visits were supervised.Due to her dismal domestic situation, Norton became deeply involved in the passage of laws promoting social justice, especially those granting rights to married and divorced women. Her poems "A Voice from the Factories" (1836) and "The Child of the Islands" (1845) centred on her political views.

When Parliament debated divorce reform in 1855, Norton submitted to 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.

Mainly through Norton's intense campaigning, which included a letter to Queen Victoria, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870, which she worked on with the suffragist Barbara Bodichon. One recent biographer, Diane Atkinson, notes that unlike in 1839 and 1857, Norton played no part in campaigning for the 1870 Act. Under the Custody of Children Act, legally separated or divorced wives, provided they were not found guilty of criminal conversation, were granted the 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 they 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 exert their rights. The Matrimonial Causes Act reformed the law on divorce, among 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.In 1849 Daniel Maclise finished his fresco of Justice in the House of Lords, for which Norton had modelled. He chose her as one seen by many as a famous victim of injustice. Norton's old friend Lord Melbourne opposed the reforms she fought for. 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."While Norton fought to extend women's legal rights, she eschewed further social activism and had no interest in the 19th-century women's movement on issues such as women's suffrage. In fact, in an article published in The Times in 1838, she countered a claim that she was a "radical": "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."

Later life

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

Family and descendants

Norton's eldest son, Fletcher Norton, died of tuberculosis in Paris at the age of 30. She was devastated by the loss.In 1854, her remaining son, Thomas Brinsley Norton, married a young Italian, Maria Chiara Elisa Federigo, whom he met in Naples. Thomas also suffered from poor health, and spent much of his life as an invalid, reliant upon his mother for financial assistance. Despite this, he lived long enough to succeed his uncle as 4th Baron Grantley of Markenfield. Lord Grantley also predeceased his mother, dying in 1877.

His son, John, inherited the title and estates. 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 grew orchids. Caroline Norton's grandson caused a scandal in 1879 by running off with another man's wife, the former Katharine McVickar, daughter of a wealthy American stockbroker. The jilted husband was the 5th Lord Grantley's older cousin, Major Charles Grantley Campbell Norton. Katharine's marriage to Charles was annulled, and Katharine and John were married that November, five days before the birth of their first child. Despite her scandalous introduction to British society, Katharine went on to become a successful London hostess.


In April 2021 English Heritage announced that Norton was one of six women to be honoured that year with a blue plaque marking her central London home for over 30 years. It was unveiled on 3 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair by Antonia Fraser.


Political pamphlets

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

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, 3 vols, 1835

Stuart of Dunleath, 1851

Lost and Saved, 3 vols, 1863

Old Sir Douglas. 3 vols, 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

"We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet"



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

Works by or about Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton at Wikisource

Quotations related to Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton at Wikiquote

Media related to Caroline Norton at Wikimedia Commons

"Caroline Norton" at British History > Women's Suffrage (

"Caroline Norton (1808–1877)" at A Celebration of Women Writers, U. of Pennsylvania Library

"A Candle for Caroline: ... Natasha Walter looks at the life of a forgotten heroine", The Guardian, 12 June 2006

Discussion of Caroline Norton's life on BBC Radio 4's Great Lives, September 2016

Works by or about Caroline Norton at Internet Archive

Works by Caroline Norton at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)

Works by Caroline Norton at Open Library

"Archival material relating to Caroline Norton". UK National Archives.

"Juanita: a Spanish ballad" (sheet music) at the Confederate Imprints Collection, U. of Alabama Library

"A Health to the Outward Bound" (sheet music) at the Wade Hall Sheet Music Collection, U. of Alabama Library

Caroline Sheridan Norton at Library of Congress Authorities, with 66 catalogue records

Caroline Sheridan Norton Collection. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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