Caroline Norton Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.