Her grandfather was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who married the celebrated Miss Linley; and her father, Thomas Sheridan, chose for his bride a Miss Cattendean, a lady possessed of great social gifts, considerable loveliness, and some intellect.
Thomas Sheridan at his death left behind him three girls destined to take high rank among the beauties of England. One, perhaps the most beautiful of these three graces, became Duchess of Somerset; another, perhaps the most intellectual, became Lady Dufferin; and the third, certainly the most notorious, changed her name of Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan to the Hon. Mrs. George Norton.
Thomas Sheridan left little else at his death than a widow and a family, and as he was employed in the public service, the family was granted by the King the use of apartments at Hampton Court Palace.
A Bunch of Beauty
From Hampton Court they moved into town, taking a house in Gt. George Street, Westminster. The beauty of the girls, and the social gifts of the mother, were such as to make their entry into the heart of society an assured success.
They must indeed have been a remarkable family. Frances Ann Kemble thus describes them. "A host of distinguished public and literary men were crowded into their small drawing-room, which was literally resplendent with the light of Sheridan beauty, male and female. Mrs. Sheridan the mother of the graces, more beautiful than anybody but her daughters; Lady Grahame, their beautiful aunt; Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Blackwood (Lady Dufferin), Georgiana Sheridan (Duchess of Somerset, and Queen of Beauty by general consent), and Charles Sheridan, a sort of younger brother of the Apollo Belvedere. Certainly I never saw such a bunch of beautiful creatures all growing on one stem."
Caroline Sheridan married, at the age of nineteen, the Hon. George Norton - a marriage which proved fatal to her happiness. Her husband was a barrister of twenty-seven, a brother of the third Lord Grantley. He had very little money, was notoriously bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, and loose living; and in intellect was infinitely inferior to his bride, whose powers of repartee and wit were noted. How the lovely girl who drew from Disraeli the admiring comment, "Very handsome and very Sheri-danic" came to be mated to such a man would seem to be for ever a mystery. It was no ordinary pink-faced pretty girl he carried off. Mrs. Norton was a brunette, with a clear-cut Grecian profile, her rich complexion and thick braided black hair giving her an Italian beauty, which was greatly enhanced by her lovely eyes and by her manner of using them. She had a habit of letting her long eyelashes drop when talking, and was a past-mistress in all the emotional expressions. Her voice, as suited her loveliness, was a deep, rich contralto.
Mrs. Norton herself, in later years, when her unhappy married life was the talk of England, published a pamphlet in which she says, " I do solemnly declare that at the time he - her husband - first demanded me of my mother in marriage I had not exchanged six sentences with him on any subject whatsoever." Mr. Norton, on the other hand, asserted that he had loved her passionately for years, and for the sake of Mrs. Norton it would seem to be more charitable to accept her husband's statement; for, if without having idealised him with some form of affection she was willing to marry a man of his evil reputation, she had herself alone to thank for her misfortunes, which were not long in coming. They arose first from financial embarrassments, which brought clearly to view the incompatibility of their temperaments. Norton was lavish in his expenditure, and his wife by her literary work, notably the poem "The Sorrows of Rosalie," the money bringer. Mr. Norton's violence increased year by year, and the stories of their quarrels spread through the servants' halls - the whispering gallery of society - until all London gossipped. Mr.
Norton was undoubtedly black tempered and tyrannical, and Mrs. Norton, it is equally certain, stung with her wit just as effectually as he hurt with his shakings and rage.
The birth of three sons brought no uniting influence to bear, while, by increasing the household expenses, the occasions for disputes about money affairs were multiplied. Finally, Mrs. Norton, egged on by her husband, took the step which led to one of the most remark-able scandals in English society. She wrote to Lord Melbourne, then Home Secretary, requesting him to give her husband some assistance. Lord Melbourne replied to the letter in person, and shortly afterwards Mr. Norton was appointed, without the slightest qualification, to a Metropolitan police magistracy. Public comment was greatly excited by the appointment, and when it became known that Lord Melbourne and Mrs. Norton were on very intimate terms a storm burst, and Mr. Norton instituted proceedings against Lord Melbourne. The case aroused enormous public interest, not only on account of the high position of the defendant, but also on account of the celebrated beauty of the woman whose fair fame was at stake. As an evidence of the interest taken in the case, it may be mentioned that the "Times" report of the proceedings filled twenty columns of the paper.
The Hon. Mrs. Norton, one of the brilliant and dazzling granddaughters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and perhaps the most notorious of them all
The attempt by counsel to place a sinister complexion on some of the letters in the trial is supposed to have inspired the famous letters in the case of Bardwell v. Pickwick. "Dear Mrs. B., chops and tomato sauce. - Yours, Pickwick."
The jury, without even waiting to hear Lord Melbourne's defence, gave its verdict in his favour. Charles Greville, in his "Memoirs," wondered how Norton's family could venture into court with such a case, and affirms his belief that it was brought for political reasons, and this view of the matter was accepted by the public generally.
This case brought about a complete and permanent rupture between Norton and his lovely wife. They still, however, managed to quarrel over their children and money matters, and once again the differences of this ill-assorted couple were dragged into the light of day by a county court action, which
Mrs. Norton lost owing to the legal disabilities of her sex. Though she lost the case she had, however, the satisfaction of indulging in a public denunciation of her husband, who replied by a letter in the "Times." His wife promptly came out with a pamphlet, "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century," which excited much public sympathy for her, and did much to remove the legal disabilities under which women suffered. As was perhaps but natural, she also took a lively interest in the subject of divorce, and published a pamphlet dealing with Lord Cranworth's Divorce Bill.
Her husband died in 1875, and two years later she married Sir William Stirling Maxwell. She died four months after her second marriage. She retained up to the end of her life her great beauty, and it is extraordinary to note that the bickerings and heated quarrels of her married life in no way affected the charm of her personality.
No record of Mrs. Norton would be complete without mention of her literary work, which, though it attained great popularity, can hardly be considered of first-class merit. Her best known poem is "Bingen on the Rhine," and her memory is perhaps best kept green among the present generation by the preface to "Diana of the Cross-ways," in which George Meredith seeks to remove the popular impression that the Hon. Mrs. Norton was the model for his Diana.