1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Caroline Norton

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 761-62.



CAROLINE ELIZABETH SARAH NORTON, grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, has well sustained the family honours. Her father was Thomas Sheridan, and her mother was the daughter of Colonel and Lady Elizabeth Callander. Mr. Sheridan died while his children were quite young, and their mother devoted herself entirely to their education. Mr. S. C. Hall, in his Gems of the Modern Poets, describes the early genius of Miss Caroline Sheridan, and the care her mother bestowed; his notice is doubtless correct.

"To her accomplished and excellent mother," he says, "may be attributed much of Mrs. Norton's literary fame; — it forms another link in that long chain of hereditary genius which has now been extended through a whole century. Her sister, the lady of the Hon. Captain Price Blackwood, is also a writer of considerable taste and power: her publications have been anonymous, and she is disinclined to seek that notoriety which the 'pursuits of literature' obtain; but those who are acquainted with the productions of her pen will readily acknowledge their surpassing merit. The sisters used, in their childish days, to write together; and, before either of them had attained the age of twelve years, they produced two little books of prints and verses, called 'The Dandies' Ball' and 'The Travelled Dandies;' both being imitations of a species of caricature then in vogue. But we believe that, at a much earlier period, Mrs. Norton had written poetry, which even now she would not be ashamed to see in print. Her disposition to 'scribble,' was, however, checked rather than encouraged by her mother; for a long time, pen, ink, and paper were denied to the young poetess, and works of fiction carefully kept out of her way, with a view of compelling a resort to occupations of a more useful character. Her active and energetic mind, notwithstanding, soon accomplished its cherished purpose. At the age of seventeen, she wrote 'The Sorrows of Rosalie;' and, although it was not published until some time afterwards, she had scarcely passed her girlhood before she had established for herself the distinction which had long been attached to her maiden name."

When about nineteen years of age, Miss Sheridan married the Hon. George Chapel Norton, brother of the present Lord Grantley. He had proposed to her three years before, but her mother had postponed the engagement on account of her daughter's youth; and in the mean time Miss Sheridan had made an acquaintance with one whose early death prevented a union more consonant to her feelings. When Mr. Norton again sought her hand, he received it; but the marriage was an unhappy one, and they were separated in 1840. The world has heard the slanders to which she has been exposed, and a verdict of entire acquittal from all who listened to them, can scarcely have atoned for the cruel and baseless suspicions and persecution to which she was subjected. Her reputation as a virtuous woman is now established beyond suspicion. England may well be proud of this gifted daughter of song; and her own sex throughout the world should honour her for the noble courage of soul by which she overcame the malignity of unmerited persecution.

Mrs. Norton's second work was "The Undying One," a poem, founded on the legend of the Wandering Jew. In 1840, she published "The Dream, and other Poems." In noticing these two works, a writer in the Quarterly Review says of Mrs. Norton — "This lady is the Byron of our modern poetesses. She has very much of that intense personal passion by which Byron's poetry is distinguished from the larger grasp and deeper communion with man and nature of Wordsworth. She has also Byron's beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression. It is not an artificial imitation, but a natural parallel." Another British writer [author's note: Frederic Rowton], commenting on the subject, more justly observes — "That Mrs. Norton has a fervour, a tenderness, and a force of expression, which greatly resemble Byron's, there can be no doubt; but there all similarity ceases. Byron is the personification of passionate selfishness; his range of sympathy is extremely small. Mrs. Norton, on the other hand, has a large and generous heart, essentially unselfish in its feelings, and universal in its sympathies. (How perfectly these two persons typify the differences in the characteristics of the sexes!) Byron has a sneering, mocking, disbelieving spirit; Mrs. Norton a simple, beautiful, child-like implicitness of soul. Byron's strains resemble the vast, roaring, wilful waterfall, rushing headlong over desolate rocks, with a sound like the wail of a lost spirit; Mrs. Norton's, the soft, full-flowing river, margined with flowers, and uttering sweet music."

With these opinions of Mr. Rowton we entirely concur: and there are some remarks by an American writer, Rev. Dr. Bethune, which are highly creditable to his own cultivated taste and moral feelings, as well as truly just to this distinguished lady. "The traces of Mrs. Norton's sufferings are burned deeply on her pages. She scorns to hide the workings of her embittered memory and outraged heart; yet her tone, though unconstrained, is lofty, yielding not to man, but to the force of nature. What she has endured, has taught her not misanthropy, but a stronger sympathy with the weak and the wronged, a nobler eloquence in appeals for freedom, truth, and general justice."

In 1843, appeared her noble poem, "The Child of the Islands;" the nominal hero was the then baby prince of Wales, but the real purpose of Mrs. Norton was to pourtray the condition of the poor in England. The philanthropy which prompted the poem is as warm and holy as her genius is pure and fervid. The production was received with favour, and has, no doubt, been of essential service in awakening the public mind to suffering humanity. Mrs. Norton's last work is a beautiful combination of her varied talents, entitled "Music on the Wave;" the words and music both her own — published in 1851.

The Honourable Mrs. Norton, as her true style is, divides now with Mrs. Barrett Browning the laurel Great Britain confers on her daughters of song. Mr. Horne, in his New Spirit of the Age, says of these two distinguished women: — "Both possess not only great mental energies, but that description of strength which springs from a fine nature, and manifests itself in productions which evidently originated in genuine impulses of feeling. The subjects they both choose appear spontaneous, and not resulting from study or imitation, though cast into careful moulds of art. Both are excellent artists: the one in dealing with subjects of domestic interest; the other in designs from sacred subjects, poems of religious tendency, or of the supernatural world. Mrs. Norton is beautifully clear and intelligible in her narrative and course of thought and feeling; Miss Barrett has great inventiveness, but not an equal power in construction. The one is all womanhood; the other all wings."

This true womanly sentiment is a distinguishing characteristic of Mrs. Norton's productions. Her poems are replete with beauties of language, of images, and of thought; the most impassioned passages are characterized by a sweet feminine delicacy and purity of tone. Among her short poems, many exquisite ones might be quoted. She has also succeeded in the almost impossible achievement — really good English sonnets. As a prose writer, she must be ranked among the best contributors to the annuals; and her novel, "Woman's Reward," is hardly surpassed by any of its contemporary romances. On the whole, we are inclined to place Mrs. Norton at the head of the living Women of Genius, who now make England distinguished as the favoured country in Europe for the development of the virtues, the talents, and the true graces of womanhood. Mrs. Norton has, we believe, powers of mind to sustain, worthily, her high position.