Helen, Caroline, and Georgiana Sheridan were the prettiest and the poorest belles of English society in 1826. They came from a family of artists who flouted convention and courted radical politics. Their grandfather was the most famous Irish playwright of the 18th century, and their grandmother was a soprano with a voice of an angel and a tragic propensity for stumbling into scandals. But the Sheridans were better at generating gossip than income, and their mother struggled to sustain four sons and three daughters in a charity apartment off Hampton Court.
They had no dowries, and they could not afford any of the latest fashions, but the Sheridan sisters reigned over the London social scene. Their admirers, and there were many, dubbed them the three muses. “Georgey’s the beauty, Carry’s the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not,” Helen later quipped to Prime Minister Disraeli. (Helen happened to be a renowned composer.) But Georgiana’s beauty put Helen and Caroline in an awkward position despite their own ample charms. The wealthiest suitors in London lined up for their lovely little sister’s hand, but tradition dictated that she could not marry until her older sisters married. And with a desperate need for money, their mother was eager for them all to marry young and well. So Helen married a man she did not love and, with time, found love, while Caroline married a man she did not love, and in very little time, found misery.
Caroline had a sharp tongue that made younger, less confident men blush. She completed her first season as a debutante with only one marriage proposal. George Norton, the heir to Grantley Hall, had seen her briefly when she was 16 and never forgotten her. He promised her mother he could support her, so they married in a small ceremony in London. She was 19, witty, flirtatious, intellectual, and charming. He was 26, rigid, slow, stolidly conservative, and full of pretensions to high nobility which he did not have the income to support.
Their marriage was a study of all that could go wrong for a woman with no rights and a cruel husband. Determined to put her in her place and unable to match her in conversation, Norton physically abused Caroline. He beat her so severely that she lost her fourth child in a miscarriage. Contrary to his promises to her mother, he did have the income to support a family, yet he saw work as beneath his rank. It was up to Caroline to support themselves and their sons. She wrote romantic stories and poetry, taking full advantage of the Sheridan name and her way with words. Meanwhile, her free-thinking and easy charm attracted London’s best minds to her drawing room where she hosted forward-looking intellectuals and powerful Whig politicians—including the future Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne—at her salons. She even secured her unimpressive husband a profitable position as a magistrate.
But Norton resented his wife’s success even as he grew ever more dependent on her. Ever spiteful, he brought a suit against the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, accusing him of “Criminal Conversation”—a Victorian euphemism for an affair—with his wife. He hoped the suit would rid him of his wife, win him £10,000 in damages, and destabilize the left-leaning government. Although Caroline’s reputation was on trial, she had no legal identity separate from her husband. She could neither testify nor attend the trial, so she only learned about the lies staining her name from newspapers. The court threw out Norton’s claims. After all, they stood on no more evidence than the mismatched stories of servants bribed by his brother, the lord of Grantley Hall. But the verdict didn’t matter to Caroline. Her husband had seared a scarlet letter on her name that she would never escape.
Now Caroline and Norton were separated, and Caroline had no means of protecting herself from him. Norton stole their children away to his relatives’ house and barred her from seeing them. He locked her out of their home, exercising his right to collect even her income from her writing. And she had no legal recourse. Even when he violated the terms of a contract they signed together, he insisted it was not binding because in the eyes of British law, her identity was subsumed into his as soon as she said “I DO.” He only let her visit the children after her youngest child died before she could say goodbye.
Never one to relinquish a just cause, Caroline was determined to change the law with her pen. She advocated for the rights of married women in lengthy pamphlets and strategic conversations with her powerful friends. “I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence,” she wrote in a public letter to Queen Victoria. She made Britain understand the irony of having a queen reigning over a legal system when every other married woman was legally “non-existent.” She used her tragic story to expose the blatant injustices of British law, but for her, it was always a struggle that touched every woman. Members of Parliament paraphrased and borrowed her words as they debated reforms to the legal code. Because of her, the law changed. Women gained the right to claim custody of young children and visitation rights to older children. Married women were enabled to inherit and bequeath property, protect their independent income, and enter contracts and civil suits without their husband’s permission. After Caroline Norton, married women were no longer non-existent in the eyes of the law.
Caroline Norton was the model for Daniel Maclise’s 1850 fresco, The Spirit of Justice, in the House of Lords