Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808–77)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 9, 311–313.
When R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age appeared in 1844, EBB and Caroline Norton were, as EBB wrote to Mary Russell Mitford on 13 March, “fastened up in a gold cage together” (letter 1567). Horne’s chapter on EBB and Mrs. Norton is reprinted in our volume 8, 341–344. Mrs. Norton, well-known social and literary personality, was born in London in 1808; she was the granddaughter of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). Her mother, widowed while Caroline was still a child, was noted for her beauty and gifts as a novelist, and such characteristics were passed along to Caroline and her two sisters, Helen and Georgiana. The young women are cited in EB as “the ‘three Graces’ of London society in the reign of George IV.” Helen—herself a poetess—eventually became Lady Dufferin; Georgiana, the Duchess of Somerset. After Helen’s death, her son, the Earl of Dufferin, erected a tower in her honour, about which he asked both Tennyson and Browning to write some lines, thus inspiring RB’s sonnet “Helen’s Tower.” RB never included it in any of his volumes or collections. It followed the title page in a book of Lady Dufferin’s poems collected by her son in 1894.
Caroline Sheridan married far less successfully than did her sisters. In 1827 she became the wife of George Chapple Norton, who suffered from constant pecuniary woes and a violent temper. The Nortons’s incompatibility resulted in two court cases. In 1836, only five years after having received an appointment to a police magistracy from Lord Melbourne, Norton accused the Prime Minister of “criminal conversation” with Caroline. Neither party was called upon for defence, and the jury rejected the charge without leaving the box. In 1853 Norton sued his wife for money she had earned from writing; she claimed to have earned at least £1,400 in a single year from her works. Mrs. Norton’s difficulties with her husband prompted her to write letters and pamphlets concerning divorce laws and the legal status of women. Despite all the problems, Caroline remained Norton’s wife until his death in 1875.
Caroline Norton’s literary career was effectively launched with the publication of The Sorrows of Rosalie (1829). Her choice of topics ranged from general human interest to contemporary social concerns, and included the following poetical works: The Undying One (1830), A Voice from the Factories (1836), The Dream, and Other Poems (1840), The Child of the Islands (1845) about the Prince of Wales and English social conditions, Aunt Carry’s Ballads for Children (1847), and The Lady of the Garaye (1862). A copy of The Dream was the last gift EBB received from her brother “Bro” before his death in 1840 (Reconstruction, A1756). Accordingly, when she was helping Horne prepare a second edition of A New Spirit, she said “I have so painful an association of a personal nature with the book, as to lose all courage to look into it” (letter 1626). Mrs. Norton edited The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée from 1832 to 1837, and contributed to various literary annuals. Eventually she wrote three novels: Stuart of Dunleath (1851), Lost and Saved (1863), and Old Sir Douglas (1867). Stuart was the only one of these published during EBB’s lifetime. In a letter to her sister Arabella dated 10 January 1855, she said it was “ill written, but excellently conducted in point of story.”
Although Caroline Norton was frequently mentioned by the Brownings, especially EBB, they had little contact with her. As to correspondence, only one letter is extant. Mrs. Norton wrote it to RB on 18 May 1876, enquiring about the qualifications of a maid who claimed to have worked for EBB. On one occasion in 1844 (letter 1569), Horne told EBB that he thought Mrs. Norton would like to write to her, but nothing more is known of this. In a letter to Mary Russell Mitford on 7 December 1842 (no. 1076), comparing Mary Howitt with Mrs. Norton, EBB said: “Still I like her better than Mrs. Norton—I think I do. Some of Mrs. Norton’s minor poetry has a deeper hold of pathos,—but upon the whole—& considering the exceeding feebleness of the long principal poem of her last volume [The Dream], I think I certainly do.” Also, on 29 January 1844 (letter 1513), she told Horne: “I confess to you in confidence a little disinclination towards the woman herself which may vibrate, in spite of me, thro’ my estimate of her writings.” On 17 April 1845, however, she wrote to RB: “Mrs. Norton discourses excellent music.”
In 1843 the eccentric artist Benjamin Robert Haydon confessed to EBB of his infatuation with Mrs. Norton (see especially letters 1166 and 1173). Haydon told EBB that he had painted Mrs. Norton “as Cassandra for the Duke of Sutherland” (letter 1166). When EBB, on 6 July 1846, wrote to RB of Haydon’s claim “that Mrs. Norton had made advances towards him,” RB replied on the following day: “That poor woman is the hack-block of a certain class of redoubtable braggarts—there are such stories by the dozen in circulation.”
When Horne placed EBB and Caroline Norton in the same chapter of A New Spirit, he undertook to draw striking contrasts between them: “[Mrs. Norton] is well known, personally, to a large and admiring circle, and is also extensively known to the reading public by her works. The latter lady [EBB], or ‘fair shade’—whichever she may be—is not known personally, to anybody, we had almost said; but her poetry is known to a highly intellectual class.” Further along: “The one is all womanhood; the other all wings.” Various reviewers expressed bewilderment over the linkage of these two ladies with such differing characteristics—apparently not understanding Horne’s deliberate intent to contrast them. Even Henry Fothergill Chorley in The Athenæum (30 March 1844) referred to the chapter “strangely uniting Mrs. Norton and Miss Barrett!” And EBB’s somewhat fanatical admirer Thomas Westwood wrote on 4 April 1844 (letter 1592) that he had “waxed indignant at once.” See also Robert Shelton Mackenzie’s complaint in letter 1721.
Caroline Norton had three sons. The eldest, Fletcher, died at age 30 while en route to become secretary of the British Legation at Athens. The third, William, was killed in a childhood accident. The second, Thomas Brinsley, went to Italy and became acquainted with the Brownings. In a letter postmarked 2 July 1854 (to EBB), Adelaide Kemble Sartoris referred to an evening spent with the Brownings & Brinsley Norton. She characterized his “babbling” as “so carefully & advisedly idiotic & foolish!” This was at about the same time as when EBB was extravagantly praising him. EBB’s first mention of him occurred in a letter written to Henrietta Cook, from Florence, on 29 July 1854. She reported that Brinsley, who was “over-polished” and “full of poetical sentiment,” was married to an uneducated peasant girl from Capri, “rather coarse in character,” (mentioned in at least one of EBB’s letters as “Marie”). Of Brinsley, EBB said: “I like him very much. He is earnest, frank & ingenuous”—an opinion which she continued to hold for some months. It was apparently at about this time that RB tried to assist Brinsley in writing some poems. The Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University has a set of proof sheets with a wrapper inscribed: “To Robert & Elizabeth Browning these proof sheets, a fragment of the coming book from Brinsley Norton” (Reconstruction, E530). One of the poems bears RB’s corrections and comments. A son was born to the Nortons, and on 28 August 1854 EBB wrote to Eliza Ann Ogilvy concerning Caroline, Brinsley’s mother: “She is said to be nearly as beautiful as ever—under which brilliant circumstances it must be rather trying to be a grandmama.” On 20 December 1854 EBB wrote to Arabella that Brinsley had visited the Browning apartment, “opening his heart about his marriage .. talking about his ‘regrets,’ & crying, sobbing like a boy.” By April 1855 EBB had undergone a complete change of attitude, writing on the 27th to her sister Henrietta: “Mr. Norton we dont like half as much as I fancied we might– He is … absorbed in self-contemplation … neglects his wife, is selfish altogether.” The wife, meanwhile, was described as “so gentle and good and sad.”
Letters written by EBB in late 1854 indicate that Caroline Norton was in Florence at that time. One written to Arabella on 26 November said: “Isa Blagden & Mrs. Norton have taken apartments in Mr. [Frederick] Tennyson’s house.” On 20 December, also to Arabella, she quoted the younger Mrs. Norton as saying that Caroline “wished her to learn to sing instead of learning to read!!.. but that, for her own part, she thought reading would be of more use to her.” Caroline Norton died on 15 June 1877, only a few months after her marriage to Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. Mrs. Norton is said to have been the model for novelist George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885).