misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Caroline Norton, her life and poetry (1808-77)

Dear friends and readers,

I've not made a poetry blog in a long while, as someone on one of my lists liked the poems of Caroline Norton (which I then put on all three) I thought I'd share these three plus one comic one here -- and retell her life and talk of her novels (with links to other fuller discussions).

What I'm doing is also adding to a selection of poets I put on my old blog, are on the Wompo festival website (to which I added some more specific lives and poems, to wit,  Henrietta St John Knight. 

Georgiana Spencer Duchess of Devonshire

Sara Teasdale

First an image of Caroline which has come down to us:

In brief, Known for her life story and work on behalf of liberating other women and children ("Infants Custody Bill," 1839), Norton wrote novels (a good, riveting and important one is Lost and Saved); Norton also wrote poetry, socially concerned (A View from the Factories, 1836), and personal, like these three sonnets:

           416  In the cold change, which time hath wroguth on love

In the cold change, which time hath wrought on love
   (The snowy winter of his summer prime),
Should a chance sigh, or sudden tear-drop, move
     Thy heart to memory of the olden time;
Turn not to gaze on me with pitying eyes,
     Nor mock me with a withered hope renewed;
But from the bower we both have loved, arise,
     And leave me to my barren solitude!
What boots it that a momentary flame
     Shoots from the ashes of a dying fire?
We gaze upon the hearth from whence it came,
    And know the- exhausted embers must expire:
Therefore no pity, or my heart will break;
Be cold, be careless-for thy past love's sake!

[You could make a sympathetic film adaptation about Norton's liaison with Melbourne]

        417. Like an enfranchised bird, who wildly springs

Like an enfranchised bird, who wildly springs,
    With a keen sparkle in his glancing eye
And a strong effort in his quivering wings,
     Up to the blue vault of the happy sky,­--
So my enamored heart, so long thine own,
    At length from Love's imprisonment set free,
Goes forth into the open world alone,
    Glad and exulting in its liberty:
But like that helpless bird, (confined so long,
    His weary wings have lost all power to soar,)
Who soon forgets to trill his joyous song,
    And, feebly fluttering, sinks to earth once more,­
So, from its former bonds released in vain,
My heart still feels the weight of that remembered chain.

          418.  To My Books

Silent companions of the lonely hour,
  Friends, who can never alter or forsake,
Who for inconstant roving have no power,
    And all neglect, perforce, must calmly take,­
Let me return to you; this turmoil ending
   Which worldly cares have in my spirit wrought,
And, o'er your old familiar pages bending,
    Refresh my mind with many a tranquil thought:
Till, haply meeting there, from time to time,
    Fancies, the audible echo of my own,
'Twill be like hearing in a foreign clime
   My native language spoke in friendly tone,
And with a sort of welcome I shall dwell
On these, my unripe musings, told so well.


In the first she is thinking of Shakespeare -- his sonnets were so famous by this time.  Lines like: 

(The snowy winter of his summer prime),

 And leave me to my barren solitude!
What boots it that a momentary flame

But the ashes and fire and gazing are 18th century motifs -- found in Cowper in a famous couplet even Austen has Mr Knightley paraphrase in Emma.  And seasonal poetry of just this type was popular in sonneteers -- like Bowles, Smith, Seward. The enfranchised bird is a trope of women's poetry: she is no longer in her cage but she remembers the chain and the memory is painful and ambiguous; it was a form of safety. This trope ultmately comes from fables of birds (Aesop).  What distinguishes Norton is the feeling -- so full and strong.

It's good to know she could laugh too:

First Love by Caroline Norton (1830)

YES, I know that you once were my lover,
    But that sort of thing has an end,
And though love and its transports are over,
    You know you can still be--my friend:
I was young, too, and foolish, remember;
    (Did you ever hear John Hardy sing?)
It was then, the fifteenth of November,
    And this is the end of the spring!

You complain that you are not well-treated
    By my suddenly altering so;
Can I help it?--you're very conceited,
    If you think yourself equal to Joe.
Don't kneel at my feet, I implore you;
    Don't write on the drawings you bring;
Don't ask me to say, "I adore you,"
    For, indeed, it is now no such thing.

I confess, when at Bognor we parted,
    I swore that I worshipped you then--
That I was a maid broken-hearted,
    And you the most charming of men.
I confess, when I read your first letter,
    I blotted your name with a tear--
But, oh! I was young--knew no better,
    Could I tell that I'd meet Hardy here?

How dull you are grown! how you worry,
    Repeating my vows to be true--
If I said so, I told you a story,
    For I love Hardy better than you!
Yes! my fond heart has fixed on another,
    (I sigh so whenever he's gone,)
I shall always love you--as a brother,
    But my heart is John Hardy's alone.

Jane Austen said she would fill in for a wife for Crabbe when his own wife died; that her heart was his too.

She had such a terrible life in many ways. She was the granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  She was part of the Sheridan clan (many gifted people, from Frances and Richard and Betsy, to Sheridan Le Fanu) and grew up in Scotland. The marriage to Norton is said to have been an arrangement she was pushed into as an innocent (perhaps like Edith Wharton's).  She had three sons with Norton, and was part of courtly and powerful cliques; Norton wanted her to use her connections to forward his career, and did things like suing others on her behalf (but not with her permission) for money owed her (and then belonging to him by law).  When she finally left him, he turned on her to go to court against her and accuse her of adultery with Melbourne.  During this time she was already a much published writer and poet.

Her husband wanted to get rid of her and it seems he paid servants to come up with trumped up evidence about a supposed affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, which was the basis of the trial in 'Pickwick Papers', where all the evidence is notes about tomato sauce for supper, ludicrously interpreted as secret love letters. There was a powerful TV  partly about this case and the resulting child custody battle a few years ago, and I don't remember it even mentioning her writing.

Apparently the real evidence was no more convincing than Dickens's spoof, (he covered the trial as a reporter) and was thrown out by the court - but, although Melbourne's reputation was intact, Norton's was ruined by the very fact that she had been mentioned in such a case. Her husband managed to get a divorce all the same and took custody of the children, not allowing her to see them for years on end - she was only called to the deathbed of one of her sons. She managed to get some changes in the law on child custody.

She went to live with her mother and began a long career to change infant custody laws, marriage and divorce and also laws about child labor.  Her contributions were significant and it's felt that she was an important individual in securing change.  She wrote outspoken novels too about women in a situation like her own (The Wife and Woman's Reward). Late in life she remarried, a Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. 

An excellent article on her novels is by Elisabeth Rose Gruner, "Plotting the Mother: Caroline Norton, Helen Huntingdon, and Isabel Vane, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 16:2 (Autumn 1997):303-325

Here is her life told in much more detail: it's eloquent and heart-breaking, a gallant woman. Here are more of her poems.

I end on two stanzas from a one famous poem,  A Voice from the Factories

Ever a toiling child doth make us sad:
'Tis an unnatural and mournful sight,
Because we feel their smiles should be so glad,
Because we know their eyes should be so bright.
What is it, then, when, tasked beyond their might,
They labour all day long for others' gain,
Nay, trespass on the still and pleasant night,
While uncompleted hours of toil remain?
Poor little factory slaves - for you these lines complain!
Beyond all sorrow which the wanderer knows,
Is that these little pent-up wretches feel;
Where the air thick and close and stagnant grows,
And the low whirring of the incessant wheel
Dizzies the head, and makes the senses reel:
There, shut for ever from the gladdening sky,
Vice premature and Care's corroding seal
Stamp on each sallow cheek their hateful die,
Line the smooth open brow, and sink the saddened eye.

Myself I think we pity children because we see how weak and frail they are in comparison to adults and realize as we look at them they are helpless against cruel bullying and exploitation wreaked on them

A group of women painted in 1923:

Francis Coates (1857-1932) The Perplexed Players

Tags: 19th century, foremother poet, politics, women's poetry

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