Caroline’s youth and family
Caroline Norton (Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton) born on 22nd march 1808 was an extraordinary example of how women influence legislation despite not having a vote or participate as parliamentarians. She was a great beauty and had three sisters collectively referred to as the Three Graces.
Caroline’s father was Thomas Sheridan who was an actor, soldier, and colonial administrator, mother was Caroline Henrietta Callander, a novelist. Mrs. Sheridan wrote three novels out of which one was inspired by her daughter’s biographer as
“ rather stiff with the style of eighteenth century but none without a certain charm and wit”
Marriage and divorce
In 1827, she married George Chapple Norton, a barrister. George was a jealous and possessive husband and soon their marriage started breaking apart when he started mental and physical abuse on Caroline.
In addition to that, he was also unsuccessful in his work as a barrister for which caroline Norton used her connections to get him the job of Metropolitan police magistrate. In 1836, Norton left her husband and used her earnings to manage her living but George claimed that these were his earning in court and got her money confiscated, kept all her manuscripts, her family heirlooms, and three sons.
Later she used the law to her own advantage, as she ran bills in her husband’s name and told the creditors that they could sue him if they want money. Later According to a law in 1836, children were the legal property of their father.
George using the law to his advantage, took the children in hiding with some relatives and prevented caroline from seeing her three sons till one of their sons caught up in fighting for life falling from a horse. He let Caroline meet her son at that time but she couldn’t make it on time and their son died before she could arrive. After that, George let her meet their son but only under supervision as he had the full custody of the children
Soon after Caroline leaving George, he accused Caroline of being involved in an affair with prime minister Lord Melbourne. Initially, George demanded an amount of 10,000 euros from Lord Melbourne but prime minister refused to be blackmailed for which he took both of them to Court in 1836, where he accused Lord Melbourne of Criminal Conversation or adultery with his wife.
Lord Melbourne insisted that women should never part from her husband and that caroline should stay with her husband. The trial continued in court for about 9 days, after which Lord Melbourne was found not guilty and released but this publicity brought the govt. down.
In the face of this complete, sort of, destruction of her life and her reputation, Caroline responded by picking up her pen and going to war with the English legal system which resulted in the origin of the campaign for the Infant Custody Act would become the Infant Custody Act of 1839. Frustrated by George’s refusal to let her see her sons, she started her assault on parliament by writing a pamphlet, it was rather a long-winded title. It was
“ observation on the natural Claims of a Mother to the custody of her children as affected by the common Law Rights of the father”
Talfourd took her plea to the House of Commons, She didn’t know Talfourd personally but she was aware of how well he defended Lord Melbourne nine months earlier in crim con case. The first reading in House of Commons was announced at the end of April 1837. So by the force of circumstance, Caroline had transformed herself from a socialite to a campaigner and an accidental feminist.
Her emotional and intellectual development had matured with a sharper feminist focus. Caroline Norton was not seeking female equality in her pamphlet to the Queen, Caroline even wrote:
“The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! … I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality”
Parliament later passed the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. The act’s four clauses amounted to less than 400 words but it changed the legal reputation of mothers with a good reputation forever.
If a wife was legally separated or divorced from a husband and has not been found guilty of adultery in a criminal conversation case or in an ecclesiastical court, she was now entitled custody of her children up to the age of seven and periodic access thereafter.
Caroline Norton Poems
Some of the famous poems of Caroline Norton were:
- Escape From The Snares Of Love
- I Was Not False To Thee
- Love Not
- The Bride
- The King Of Denmark’s Ride.
- We Have Been Friends Together
- When Poor In All But Hope And Love .
- 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)