Norton's campaign over child custody and the conditions of divorce marks her out as a major Victorian campaigner for women's rights.
Caroline Sheridan was born in London on 22 March 1808 into a grand but impoverished family. She was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her father died when she was eight years old, leaving the family with serious financial problems. So when George Norton, who was Tory member of parliament for Guildford at the time, asked to marry Caroline only eight years later, Caroline's mother was keen for the match to succeed. Against her wishes, but fearing for the well-being of her family, Caroline conceded.
The marriage was an extremely unhappy one and Caroline was the victim of regular and vicious beatings. She found solace in her writing and the publication of her verses 'The Sorrows of Rosalie' (1829) and 'The Undying One' (1830) resulted in her appointment as editor of 'La Belle Assemblée' and 'Court Magazine'. With these appointments and publications came a taste of financial independence.
In 1836, she finally left from her husband who, despite previously encouraging the friendship, now claimed that Caroline was guilty of adultery with the home secretary Lord Melbourne and sued Melbourne for seducing his wife. Norton lost the case but Caroline's reputation was ruined. Norton refused Caroline access to her three children and her subsequent protests were instrumental in the passing of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839.
Norton later attempted to take the proceeds of her writing. Her campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce included an eloquent letter to Queen Victoria, which was published. Caroline's efforts were influential in the passing of the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857.
Her writing in verse includes an attack against child labour entitled 'Voice from the Factories' (1836) and she also published an autobiographical novel, 'Stuart Dunleath' (1851). She died on 15 June 1877. She had married William Stirling Maxwell, a friend for 25 years, a few months before her death.
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