Caroline Norton Essay - Critical Essays

Norton, Caroline


Caroline Norton 1808-1877

(Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan) English poet, novelist, and political reformer.

Regarded as an important early feminist by modern critics, Norton was viewed as an accomplished poet and novelist by her contemporaries. Critics favorably compared her to Elizabeth Barrett and referred to her as "the Byron of modern poetesses" due to the intense emotion characteristic of her work. Norton drew extensively on her personal life in poetry and novels; this has typically informed criticism of her literary works. For example, reviewers of The Dream and Other Poems (1840) discussed both its artistic merits and its suggestions of Norton's unhappy life. Modern scholarly attention has turned to her political writings and her role in the women's movement.

Biographical Information

Norton was born into the widely respected Sheridan family; she was a granddaughter of the English dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She married George Norton in 1827 and together the couple had three sons. The marriage proved to be troubled, and Norton turned to writing poetry as a creative outlet. She published The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems in 1829 and The Undying One and Other Poems one year later. In 1836 she and her husband separated. Per English law of the time, Norton was denied custody of her children. For the next five years, she sought to influence Parliament to grant separated women rights to their children. In 1837 she wrote a pamphlet entitled Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered. By 1839, a bill was passed that slightly reformed infant custody laws. Throughout this period, Norton continued to publish poetry, as well as several novels. In July of 1842, her youngest son died while in his father's care, and the two older boys were returned to their mother. Subsequently Norton wrote the pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and Letter to the Queen (1855), influencing an 1857 bill reforming marriage and divorce laws. In 1877, two years after her husband's death, Norton remarried; she died later that year.

Major Works

Norton's first collection of poetry, The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems relates the story of a woman doomed to a life of misfortune after she is deserted by her lover. In Norton's next volume, The Undying One and Other Poems, the title poem recounts the legend of the Wandering Jew, a figure destined to live in perpetual struggle and despair. Following her separation from her children, Norton penned The Dream and Other Poems. The subject of "The Dream" is a young girl who dreams of love and marriage and is later warned by her mother to relinquish her hopes of wedded happiness. Based on fact, Norton's long poem, The Lady of La Garaye (1862) tells the story of a woman who, after an accident, is left maimed, near death, and unsure of her husband's love. The experience strengthens her husband's love and together they spend the rest of their lives in the service of others. Norton's novels present themes and subjects similar to those in her poetry. In Stuart of Dunleath (1851), the heroine is forced into a loveless and violent marriage. The novel closes with her death. In Lost and Saved (1863), a woman is deserted by her husband and nearly starves to death as she tries to support herself.

Critical Reception

Critical discussion of Norton's poetry and fiction centers primarily on her literary use of personal experience. Hartley Coleridge wrote that Norton's poetry exhibits "intense personal passion" as well as tenderness and "forceful expression" paralleling that of Lord Byron, but urged Norton to move beyond personal experience and write on themes "less morbid." While many later reviewers agreed on both counts, some reiterated only Coleridge's latter comments. Other critics defended Norton's use of personal experience. R. H. Home contended that Norton "writes from the dictates of a human heart in all the eloquence of beauty and individuality." Others asserted that the biographical component of Norton's writings contributed to her literary popularity. Despite the morose themes of all of Norton's writings, her graceful and elegant style, as well as her power for creating vivid, descriptive images, have been generally commended.

Principal Works

The Dandies'Rout (juvenilia) 1821

The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems (poetry) 1829

The Undying One and Other Poems (poetry) 1830

The Wife and Woman's Reward (novels) 1835

A Voice from the Factories (poetry) 1836

Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered (essay) 1837

*"A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor" [as Pearse Stevenson] (letter) 1839

The Dream and Other Poems (poetry) 1840

Lines (On the Young Queen Victoria) (poetry) 1840

The Child of the Islands (poem) 1845

Aunt Carry's Ballads for Children (poetry) 1847

Letters to the Mob (letters) 1848

Stuart of Dunleath (novel) 1851

†English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (essay) 1854

Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (letter) 1855

Centenary Festival (Verses on Burns) (poetry) 1859

The Lady of La Garaye (poem) 1862

Lost and Saved (novel) 1863

Old Sir Douglas (novel) 1867

Bingen on the Rhine (poetry) 1883

*Not published; printed for distribution among members of Parliament.

†Printed for private circulation.


The Edinburgh Review (review date 1831)

SOURCE: A review of The Undying One and Other Poems, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LIII, No. CVI, June, 1831, pp. 361-69.

[In the essay that follows, the unsigned critic analyzes Norton's poem "The Undying One," suggesting that if Norton would "confine herself to simpler themes" she would assuredly be a success.]

Some persons of a desponding turn of mind will have it, that the attendance on Apollo's levees has been for some time past on the decline—that the older nobility have been keeping aloof, and that, under cover of a profusion of finery and false ornaments, several suspicious characters have been seen moving about the apartments of late, whom the vigilance of the gentlemen in waiting ought to have excluded. Nevertheless, we see no great reason for despair; for, as to the obnoxious parvenus, they have seldom long escaped detection; and upon their second intrusion, have generally been invited, as the French say, when a member of the House of Commons is turned out, to quit the chamber with all celerity. Some of them, indeed, like Mr. Montgomery, have found their way into the street with such emphasis and rapidity, that, on recovering their senses, they have turned round, and, with strange contortions of visage, and frightful appeals, have bitterly reviled the officials, who, in the discharge of their duty, had been obliged to shut the door in their face. Others, like Mr. Reade, who made a very violent attempt the other day to gain admittance, flourishing the knocker till he disturbed the neighbourhood,—put a more blustering face upon the matter, after their exclusion; affect to say, that they never made any such application—that they would not walk in though they had been invited; and, with a 'calm confidence,' enter their appeal, as Swift dedicated his Table of a Tub, to Prince Posterity. Again, although it cannot be denied that the visits of the old supporters of the court have been less frequent, we, who would wish to look at the cheerful side both of politics and poetry, are inclined to think that among the recent arrivals, there are several names of no inconsiderable promise; nay, already of very respectable performance. Among the later presentations, it rather strikes us the majority has consisted of ladies; and of these, if report says true, none seems to have made a more successful appearance than Mrs. Norton. She might indeed, with advantage to herself, have chosen a robe of a more sober and unpretending character; but we are ready to admit, that she wears it gracefully, and are not surprised, on the whole, that her entrance did produce what the newspapers call a sensation.

It was natural, indeed, that the descendant of so gifted a family should be received with attention. But if her poem has been successful—as we are told it has—it assuredly owes extremely little of its interest and attractions to the subject. She has pleased, not in consequence of, but in spite of, the fable on which she has employed her powers.

We really had begun to flatter ourselves—rashly, as it appears—that the reading world had finally got quit of the Wandering Jew, who, for centuries past, has occasionally revisited the glimpses of the moon, making polite literature hideous. His scene with the Bleeding Nun, in Lewis's romance, we should have thought, would have been his last appearance on the stage, for a century at least; but instead of discreetly retiring for a time, as might have been expected, after such an exhibition, into the privacy of infinite space, the appearances of this intolerable revenant in our lower world have of late become more frequent and alarming than ever. In Germany, Klingemann, and Achim von Armin, have not scrupled to introduce him under his true character; and Shelley, and Captain Medwyn, both bold men in their way, have tried a similar experiment with the English public. All this, however, might be borne; for, so long as he chooses to come forward as the veritable Ahasuerus, we should feel inclined, with Antonio, to say, 'there was much kindness in the Jew,'—in enabling us, we mean, to pass by on the other side, and avoid his society in due time. But the worst and most dangerous feature about his late appearances is this, that he has been assuming various aliases, and obtaining admittance into respectable circles under borrowed names; a device, against which no precaution can avail; for his general manner in the outset resembles so much that of any other gentleman (of the Corsair school,)—he avoids so skilfully any allusion to his reminiscences of Judaea, that we only begin to suspect him when about to part company with him; and can hardly even then persuade ourselves that our agreeable companion in the post-chaise, is our old Jewry friend, till he vanishes at last, as old Aubrey says, 'with a melodious twang,' and a sulphureous odour. Nay, to such a remarkable extent have his devices in this way been carried, that he lately prevailed upon a respectable English divine, to introduce him under the euphonious name of Salathiel, in which character, we understand, he swindled the proprietors of some circulating libraries—to a small amount. And here is a second insidious attempt of the same nature, in which this intolerable Jew again comes forward to levy contributions on the public, by the style and title of Isbal the "Undying One."

Seriously—Is it not singular that a legend so absurd, and the unfitness of which for poetical narrative appears so obvious, should have been such a favourite with poets and novelists? Not that we mean to deny that the more general conception of the position of a being on whom the curse of immortality on earth has been suddenly imposed, is not in itself a striking, an impressive one. Nothing is more easy to conceive, than that in the hands of a person whose mind combines the philosophical element with the poetical, the picture of such a being,—solitary in the centre of a busy world, disconnected from all human hopes, passions, sympathies,—longing to die and to rest, to follow where all that made life worth living for had gone before him, may be capable of producing the profoundest emotion. In fact, this has been done by Godwin in his St. Leon, where the train of reflection of such an immortal—at first joyous and exulting in the boundless expansion of his powers, gradually sinking into sadness, and at last into an overpowering sensation of loneliness and desolation—is depicted with a deep knowledge of the human heart, and in a strain of touching and mournful eloquence.

But though those prospects of futurity, in which the victim of immortality throws forward his views into unborn ages, appear impressive and effective when thus embodied merely in reflection; or although a momentary glimpse of his situation may be one of solemn interest, there are insuperable obstacles to any attempt to pursue the fortunes of such a being through the lapse of centuries, or to exhibit his feelings in successive detail. Not to mention the extreme difficulty of carrying onward our sympathies to the third and fourth generation, even with the assistance of a connecting link in the existence of some one who survives them all, such an attempt invariably leads to one of two things,—either a dreary monotony, or a variety obtained at the expense of consistency and truth. To represent such a being, labouring under the consciousness that he has nothing in common with those around him, as susceptible and impassioned to the last—loving, hating, grieving on, with the same unabated energy, at the latest stage of his career, as when first he commenced his restless pilgrimage—if it enable the poet to vary the scene, deprives the conception of all which redeems it from the character of absurdity, or gives it a distinctive character. The whole effect of such an idea on the mind, is produced by the simple representation of that state of callous, impassive, unalterable desolation into which such a creature sinks—a state of gloomy, tideless tranquillity, and weatherbeaten hardihood of soul, which nothing can agitate, nothing overpower. What human passion, indeed, should interest him over whom the experience of centuries has passed?—what new grief plough deep where so many old ones have left their furrows?—what attachment bind him who soon feels that he can now love nothing truly, because he now loves nothing with that identity of heart, that abandonment of soul, wherein resides the charm and essence of the feeling? 'In the tomb of my wife and children,' says St. Leon, as he follows out to its dreary consequences the effects of the secret of the stranger,

I felt that my heart would be buried. Never, never, through the countless ages of eternity, should I form another attachment. In the happy age of delusion, happy and auspicious, at least, to the cultivation of the passions, when I felt that I also was a mortal, I was capable of a...

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Hartley Coleridge (review date 1840)

SOURCE: A review of The Dream and Other Poems in The Quarterly Review, Vol. LXVI, No. CXXII, September, 1840, pp. 374-82.

[In this frequently cited review, Coleridge refers to Norton as "the Byron of modern poetesses" because of the passion and tenderness in her poetry.]

[Caroline Norton] is the Byron of our modern poetesses. She has very much of that intense personal passion by which Byron's poetry is distinguished from the larger grasp and deeper communion with man and nature of Wordsworth. She has also Byron's beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression. It is not an artificial imitation, but a natural...

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The Dublin University Magazine (review date 1840)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Norton's Poems," in The Dublin University Magazine, Vol. XVI, No. XCVI, December, 1840, pp. 637-40.

[In the following essay, the unsigned reviewer praises the depth of emotion in Norton's work]

We have read with much interest "The Dream," and other poems by the Honourable Mrs. Norton,—regarded as mere fanciful effusions, their tone of feeling, and elegant versification would be sufficient to recommend them, but considered as the outpourings of an affectionate and grieved spirit, they win from us much more than common approval, for they awaken an individual feeling for the author. Long before this volume appeared, "The Sorrows of Rosalie," "The Undying...

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R. H. Horne (essay date 1844)

SOURCE: "Miss E. B. Barrett and Mrs. Norton," in A New Spirit of the Age, Vol. II, edited by R. H. Horne, Smith, Elder, and Co., 1844, pp. 129-40.

[Richard Henry Horne, British playwright and author, is best known for his children's books. In this essay, he compares the poetry of Norton and Elizabeth Barrett, addressing prominent themes and subjects in the works of both.]

It is anything but handsome towards those who were criticised, or fair towards the adventurous critic, to regard, as some have done, the article on "Modern English Poetesses," which appeared a few years ago in the Quarterly Review, [LXVI, No. CXXII (September 1840)] as a tribute merely of...

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Temple Bar (review date 1878)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Norton," in Temple Bar, Vol. LII, No. I, January, 1878, pp. 101-10.

[In this excerpt, the unsigned critic discusses Norton's poetry and prose, complimenting her style and arguing that her subject matter is dismal and depressing.]

It may be assumed that in social life, where [Caroline Norton] met and favourably impressed the most eminent men of the country—statesmen, artists, men of letters, who were sure to be found enthusiastically grouped around her, or in deep, private conference in a corner of the room, was the most successful sphere of her existence. There is a short piece in The Dream volume called "The Winter's Walk" (written after walking...

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Eric S. Robertson (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: "Caroline Norton," in English Poetesses: A Series of Critical Biographies, Cassell & Company, Limited, 1883, pp. 240-46.

[In the excerpt that follows, Robertson faults Norton's poetry for its repeated references to her own life and sufferings.]

Those who have read Fanny Kemble's recollections will remember that her pages give us several vivid glimpses of Caroline Norton. At one time she records that she was present at an evening gathering where a host of distinguished public and literary men were crowded into a small drawing-room, which was literally resplendent with the light of Sheridan beauty, male and female:—


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I. A. Taylor (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "The Hon. Mrs. Norton and her Writings," in Longman's Magazine, Vol. XXIX, No. CLXXI, January, 1897, pp. 231-41.

[In this excerpt, Taylor emphasizes that Norton's focus in her poetry and novels on her own experiences is not only unavoidable, but is the element that elevates her work above that of her contemporaries.]

It was not possible to [Caroline Norton], even had she desired it, to separate her life from her writings. It was precisely in the combination of the two that her power lay. Remove the personal element and little remains to differentiate her work from that of any other graceful and cultivated writer of her time. When [Hartley Coleridge] joined to...

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Janet E. Courtney (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "The 'Annualists'," in The Adventurous Thirties: A Chapter in the Women's Movement, Oxford University Press, London, 1933, pp. 44-90.

[In the following essay, Courtney reviews the impact of Norton 's marriage, relationships, social life, and political beliefs on her literary works.]

Mrs. Norton has had hard measure, not only in her lifetime but with posterity, ever since George Meredith shaped his Diana of the Crossways upon her model. But, quite apart from the fact that she made a brave fight for the rights of motherhood, and in some degree modified the laws of England on a point vital to women, she deserves a permanent place amongst the writers of her...

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Alice Acland (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Novelist," in Caroline Norton, Constable and Company, Ltd., 1948, pp. 141-57.

[Alice Acland, pseudonym of Anne Wignall, is a British novelist and biographer. In the excerpt that follows, she compares the heroines and the plots of Norton's novels to Norton's own character and experiences.]

Caroline [Norton] wrote four novels altogether. Each one was influenced more by her experiences up to the year 1842 than by any other events in her life. The first of these tales, The Wife and Woman's Reward, was published a month or two before the final crash of her marriage, the others many years later; but all bear the stamp of the bitterness of her experience...

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Mary Poovey (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Covered but Not Bound: Caroline Norton and the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act," in Uneven Developments: the Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 51-88.

[In the following excerpt, Poovey examines the issues of gender and power inequality in Norton's political writings.]

Upper-middle-class Caroline Sheridan, the beautiful granddaughter of the Whig playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was married in 1826 to George Norton, a Tory aristocratic younger son whose fortune was supposed to compensate for the fact that the couple barely knew each other when they married. Caroline's mother had been misled about...

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Further Reading

Forster, Margaret. "Law: Caroline Norton, 1808-1877." In Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, pp. 15-52. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

Provides detailed biographical information and establishes Norton's role in the early feminist movement.

Perkins, Jane Gray. The Life of Mrs Norton. London: J. Murray, 1910, 312 p.

Exhaustive biography covering all aspects of Norton's life, including her literary career and her political endeavors.

Zaborszky, Dorothy E. "'Domestic Anarchy and the Destruction of the Family': Caroline Norton and the Custody of Infants Bill." International Journal of Women's Studies 7, No....

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