The Selected Letters of Caroline Norton in Three Volumes – Some Thoughts

Caroline Norton: Watercolour sketch by Emma Fergusson 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland

The Selected Letters of Caroline Norton: Volume III by Ross Belson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I wanted to write a review to encompass all three volumes of Caroline Norton’s correspondence, and now that I have finished reading all three I am finally in a place where I can do so. Please note, though, that this is not an academic review.

In short, what an absolute treasure trove has been made available to scholars, researchers, and people generally interested in the nineteenth century. It is no secret that I have an almost obsessional interest in Caroline Norton, and her letters provide the closest possible insight into her life and what was going on in the minutiae of her day-to-day existence.

A remarkable woman for her achievements in helping to bring about changes in the law to both the custody of infant children following parental separation, and in the availability of divorce itself, her fortitude, courage and resilience shines through her letters to her many and varied circle of family and friends even as we also have a window into her despair, frustration and grief as she endured a violent marriage, followed by her reputation being dragged through the courts, and then the utter despair of being forcibly separated from her children and being denied contact with them by her husband.

Her correspondence, spanning from 1828 to 1877, with some of the major figures to feature in her life, in particular, Lord Melbourne, Mary Shelley, her husband, as well as Gladstone, Catherine Dickens, Benjamin Haydon, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and many others is revealing, yet at the same time, often frustrating as we only have her side of the correspondence on the pages in front of us. We can glean much from what she tells her correspondents – but at the same time, it takes an awareness of her approach to her writing – any form of writing – to realise that to an extent, what Norton was doing in her letters was trying to control her story, and how others saw her. So much of her life was played out on the pages of the press that she had an innate understanding that her letters were a way for her to share her view of the events that had shaped (or shattered) her life.

In all of her correspondence, there is an awareness that words have power to shape understanding and perception of her reality, which at the same time being a powerful tool of advocacy. She deployed her words, her pen, to powerful purpose, because being a victim of the deficiencies in the law, she saw herself as being well-placed to try and bring about change – even in a world where married women were to all intents and purposes invisible.

The letters should be read as an accompaniment to her political tracts, poetry and novels. In my view, her novels are long overdue for republication as they reflect her understanding of what it was to live as woman in her time, and they each critique the society in which she (and her characters) inhabit.

Recognising that these volumes are an invaluable tool, this does not mean to say that they are not without fault. I have had a couple of issues with the factual accuracy of some of the footnotes which attempt to contextualise the correspondence, but nothing which detracts from the letters themselves.

What we have, across the three volumes, is the life of a woman, of a mother, who lived with adversity, but refused to be beaten by it, fighting always for her children, and her grandchildren after that. Although Caroline’s writings no longer get the attention that they deserve, her fiction in particular being largely unavailable, her legacy stays with us. In one of her letters, Caroline reveals that she has written her history. The editors note that this history was never published and the manuscript has never been located. I felt an almost agonising sense of loss. What could we have done if we but had her words telling her own story? But, with these letters, we have the closest possible replacement of this missing testament of her life. We have access to her thoughts, her emotions, her struggles – to her very heart. For anyone who loves the nineteenth century, these letters will entrance, delight and education and are well-worth the time spent pouring over them.



View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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