1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Caroline Norton

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 53-57.



"Fair Mrs. Norton!" — we are tempted to ejaculate with Fraser, — "whom can we better choose for a beginning of our illustrious literary portraits, when, diverging from the inferior sex, our pencil dares to portray the angels of the craft?" And what an exquisite delineation it is that we here have of the fairest of the "Three Graces," as the Sheridan sisterhood were called in their lovely spring-time, — of this Sappho of our days, as she was termed, — the "Byron of modern poetesses," according to the Quarterly, — beautiful "Boudhist," as she was "baptized" by "Balaam Bulwer!" A charming portrait, truly, — "whimsical," as D. G. Rossetti so well puts it, "as in the spirit of the series, — yet truly appreciative, — of that noble beauty which in Caroline Norton inspired the best genius of her long summer-day."

This installation of the gifted authoress of The Undying One must be taken as the fulfillment of a kind of promise, made some six months ago before, at the close of an eulogistic review of that poem (Fraser's Magazine, ii. 180), to give the lovely poetess a place in the "Gallery."

The terrible "Doctor" was evidently in his softer mood, as he illustrated with pen the tracing of the pencil of Maclise; "Regina" was looking up; the Siamese Twins — Bulwer's, I mean — had received due castigation; the last glass of gin-toddy was deftly mixed: or — which is more probable, for the Doctor was an Irishman, — he had for the nonce divested himself of tooth and claw, like the amorous lion of Babrius, and was prostrate before the throne of beauty.

But it is time to ascend to the dry facts of history. Caroline Elizabeth Sarah, Lady Stirling-Maxwell, otherwise and better known as the Hon. Mrs. Norton, was the second daughter of Thomas Sheridan, and granddaughter of the Right Hon. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and his first wife, the celebrated Miss Linley. She was born in 1808; and prematurely stimulated by the sense that she was co-heiress of the family genius, produced, when scarcely out of her teens, a satirical piece, The Dandies' Rout, — not the Dandies' Ball, as Maginn says, which was the work of an earlier writer, — in which the coxcombries of the day were happily touched off by pen and by pencil. By and by (1829) came the Sorrows of Rosalie, which the Ettrick Shepherd so extravagantly lauded in the Noctes Ambrosianae and (1831) The Undying One, — a poem founded on that mysterious legend of antiquity which has exercised the genius of C. F. D. Schubart among the Germans, Eugene Sue among the French, and Shelley, Galt, Croly, and in our own immediate day, Moncure D. Conway, among ourselves, — which was praised by Fraser, and thought worthy of the higher commendation of the "blue and yellow."

In 1840, we have The Dream and other Poems, for which the Quarterly hailed her the "Byron of her sex;" in 1845, The Child of the Islands in 1847, Aunt Carry's Ballads, a book of poems for children; in 1862, The Lady of La Garaye.

In the region of prose fiction, Mrs. Norton was equally successful; her nice discrimination of character, refined satire, sympathy with all that is good and true, and absence of affectation, combining with her clear and elegant style, and a captivating tone of sadness, to give her a high place among the novelists of her day. I can but allude to her sad, sad story, Stuart of Dunleath, 1835; Lost and Saved, 1863; and Old Sir Douglas, 1858, which are her best novels.

Beside these substantive works, Mrs. Norton's anonymous, or scattered contributions to periodicals, home and foreign, — poems, art-criticism, tales, reviews, etc., — are very numerous; but no attempt can be made to indicate them here. In Macmillan's Magazine, for Jan., 1861, appeared an important letter from her pen, in defence of the character of her grandfather, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, unjustly aspersed, as she contended, by the writers whose pen-names are "Grace and Philip Wharton," in their work entitled The Wits and Beaux of Society. In this letter, she speaks of her projected Lives of the Sheridans, as "a task relinquished, with many others, in the grief caused by the illness and death of her son."

Born to some competence, heir of an illustrious name, dowered with high and diversified talents, and loveliest among the lovely "children of the Islands," the lot of Mrs. Norton seemed to possess all the elements of happiness. But there existed some fatal factor, — some lurking cypher, as it were — to mar the sweet equation of life; and domestic misery, wounded affection, and unmerited shame, was its well-known story. In 1829, when she was hardly out of her tutelage, she married Mr. George Chapple Norton, a briefless barrister of small fortune, younger brother of the third Lord Grantley, and described as a selfish, worthless, indolent sensualist. In 1830, on the accession to office of Lord Grey, the once gay and still elegant Lord Melbourne was appointed Home-Secretary. He had been the contemporary and friend of Tom Sheridan, and had cultivated the acquaintance of his fascinating daughter. Giving heed to her entreaties, he appointed her husband to a vacancy (Lambeth) in the Divisional Magistracy of London; obtained for him the Recordership of Guildford and induced the king to sign a patent for the legal use of the prenominal "Honourable." All went well for a time, and Norton's gratitude, — always fed by expectation of future benefits, — was effusive. But the minister had to remonstrate with the magistrate on the score of irregular attendance at his court; had no more lucrative office in his gift; and objected to indefinite pecuniary loans. Inde irae! Now came mean, petty and vicarious revenge, — ill-treatment of his wife, which Leycester Stanhope and Edward Ellice were powerless to improve, — attempts to get by threats what toadyism had failed to obtain, — and finally the struggle to extort from his quondam patron the sum of 10,000 damages as compensation for alleged criminal intercourse with his wife. The trial took place June 22, 1836, — "Norton v. Melbourne," — before Lord Chief-Justice Tindal and a special jury. Sir William Follett led for the plaintiff, but with a bad case, broke down hopelessly. The witnesses, chiefly servants who had been discarded for immoral character, were laughed out of court. The verdict for the defendant, given by the jury after a conference of a few seconds, was received with loud bursts of applause; and the Attorney-General, Sir John Campbell (with whom was Mr. Sergeant Talfourd), who led for Lord Melbourne, at the conclusion of the case late on in the evening, proceeded to the House of Commons, where he received quite an ovation. The examination of the witnesses for the plaintiff, in the sixpenny report of the trial before me, "Embellished with a Portrait and Memoir of the Hon. Mrs. Norton," led to details of the most filthy character, much, indeed, being suggested by asterisks as unfit for publication. After this disgraceful and scandalous affair, the couple lived apart for forty years, — squabbling from time to time about the management of their children, financial arrangements, and the copyright of her books, which the chivalric husband, who, happily for him lived before the passing of the Women's Property Act, took care to legally secure for his own benefit, as soon as they were severally issued. This sort of thing it was that extorted from the injured authoress a privately printed volume in 1854, entitled English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century; and in the following year, in pamphlet form, her impressive but too diffuse, Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (Longmans, 8vo, pp. 155), in both of which will be found severe strictures on the state of society and the marriage-law in England, with a narrative of the circumstances connected with her own unfortunate experience.

In some sort, the ill-used lady had her revenge. Her unworthy husband died Feb. 24, 1875, just before his elder brother, the third Lord Grantley. Accordingly he missed the long expected barony, to which he was next in remainder; and this devolved upon his second son by the wife who survived him to enjoy its reflected glories.

Here I am reminded of another scandal. In March, 1879, before Sir James Hannen, in the Probate Division, was heard the case, "Norton v. Norton and Grantley," the petitioner being Colonel Norton, who had been serving under the notorious and ill-used (Colonel) Baker Pasha in Turkey, and the respondent the present Lord Grantley, the son of Mrs. Norton. Here it was the husband's suit for a divorce on account of his wife's adultery with the co-respondent. There was a claim for damages against the latter, but that having been withdrawn, Sir Henry James said he could not defend the case on the part of the respondent, and there would therefore be an end of it. Under these circumstances, the jury, under the direction of the learned judge, gave a verdict for the petitioner; and the court pronounced a decree 'nisi' with costs.

In the year following that in which the death of her husband released her from conjugal thraldom, one of the oldest, the most valued and the most faithful of her friends, gave her the shelter of his name and position; and she became the wife of Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, M.P., of Pollok, Renfrewshire. This gentleman, better known in literature as Sir William Stirling, succeeded to the title, under the special limitation assigned to the baronetcy by the patent of 1707, on the death without issue of his maternal uncle, Sir John Maxwell, eighth baronet, in 1865; and subsequently assumed the additional surname of "Maxwell." After his graduation at Trinity College, Cambridge, he had lived for a considerable time on the Continent, engaged in the study of literature and art. As result of his researches, he gave us in 1848 his Annals of the Artists of Spain; and subsequently The Cloister Life of Charles V., and Velasquez and his Works. In 1863, he was elected Rector of the University of St. Andrews; in 1871, Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh: in 1875, Chancellor of the University of Glasgow; and he was a trustee of the British Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery. Lady Stirling-Maxwell did not long survive this marriage, which seemed to promise some reparation for her bewitched widowhood. She died three months after, on June 19th, 1877; and her husband shortly followed her to the grave, dying in Venice, in the following January, in the sixty-first year of his age.

Sir William Stirling-Maxwell possessed one of the finest collections of Emblemata in existence. In 1800, he printed for private circulation A Collection of Books of Proverbs, Emblems, Apophthegms, Epitaphs and Ana, being a Catalogue of those at Keir; a volume now very rarely to be met with. The number of works then chronicled was about two hundred and twenty-five; ten years later, he informed me that his collection had increased to one thousand two hundred and fifty, but that he was deterred by the bulk from printing a complete list, though his MS. catalogue had been accurately kept up. He contemplated the publication of a "mere list," and requested my assistance in the matter but he died before the design was carried out, and this department of bibliography sustained a loss, which will not speedily be supplied from other quarters. It was rumoured that Sir William had left behind him an autobiographic account of the more noteworthy incidents of his own time, including facts not hitherto known, relating to the Melbourne-Norton episode. Will they ever see the light?

I have spoken of Mrs. Norton as one of the "Three Graces," an appellation by which the daughters of Thomas Sheridan were known in the morning of their beauty. Of the others, the elder, Helen Selina whom many would rank above her sister in the tenderness and refinement of lyric verse, married, firstly Lord Dufferin, and secondly the Earl of Gifford; while the younger, Jane Georgina, became the wife of Edward Adolphus, twelfth Duke of Somerset, and is still remembered by grey-beards as the "Queen of Beauty" at the Eglingtoun Tournament.

Within a few hours of the death of Lady Stirling-Maxwell, and to a month or two, at the same age, died a lady whose life, "passed in a frugal, poor, and peaceful home," offers a remarkable contrast to the brilliant, but unrestful, career of her contemporary. This was Miss Mary Carpenter, of Bristol, so well known for the active part she had taken in the reformatory movement, and in the promotion of "ragged schools," and female education. It hardly falls within my scope to attempt anything like a Plutarchian [Greek characters], or comparison between these ladies of such diverse paths in life; so I refer my reader to the wise and witty Punch, for June 30th, 1877, in which through a score of admirable quatrains the contrast is depicted.

Shakespeare, jealously dogging the footfall of Time, implored him to pass his mistress by, and leave her beauty unmarred,—

Oh! carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,

Nor write rude lines there with thine antique pen.

Some such adjuration, one would think, had reached the ear of the unstaying one, since, despite the fifty years that had slipped away, O Posthumous, since Maclise traced in Fraser her lovely face and graceful form, the lineaments of our Corinna are still beautiful as seen in her later portraits. Those of T. Carrick and J. Hayter, in earlier life, are before me; and there is a marble bust, executed in London so far back as 1832, by an admirable sculptor, my friend, Peter Hollins, still happily alive among us in his native Birmingham, of which the best praise would be that it was worthy of the original.

The following exquisitely polished lines, with which I cannot resist the temptation to round off this notice, were written by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton:—

THE HON. MRS. NORTON.
The queenly spirit of the earth,
Passed into mortal mould, — the hour
Made holy by thy birth;
And kept its lustre and its power,
To teach the earth,
The wond'ring earth,
What shapes immortals are!

No human beauty ever bore
An aspect thus divine:
The crown the brows of Seraphs wore
Hath left its mark on thine;—
Th' unconscious glories round thee bear
The stamp divine
Of One divine,
Who trod the spheres of yore.

Oh! radiant stranger, dost thou dream
That thine may ever be
The hopes and joys of human things?
—They were not meant for thee!
Below, for thee,
No home for thee,
Bright Daughter of the Beam!

The yearning in thine absent eyes
Is for thy native shore;
And heaven is heard in every wind
Thy heartstrings wandering o'er;
In vain thou'st sought with us to find
The life before
The light before
Thy spirit left the skies.

And Mirth may flash around, and Love
May breathe its wildest vow;
But neither Mirth, nor Love, shall chase
The shadow from thy brow;
There's nought in fate that can efface
From that pale brow,
That stately brow,
The memories born above.

To mortals mortal change is given,
The sunshine as the rain!
To them the comfort and the care—
The pleasure and the pain!
To thee and thine our very air
Is silent pain,
A heavy pain!
—On earth thou askest heaven!