Essay on the work of Caroline Norton, by Alexandra Panizzi, May 2003
Love, Duty, Betrayal: Representations in Caroline Norton's Poetry
Caroline Norton was already a wife and mother when The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems was finished, and already experiencing the difficulties of a respectable woman’s life in England at this time. Her collection of poems, especially the title poem, seems to highlight specifically female issues, as did much writing by women of this period (a very long list could be compiled, of which some famous examples are George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen). These 19th-century women writers produced masses of material on love, duty and marriage, and particularly on the unique female experience of these issues.
Although Norton had experience only of polite society, the themes she explores were significant to most women – for example, the necessity for women to marry well (i.e., for wealth). A better understanding of the writing of this period is gained by an awareness of the status and needs of 19th-century women. As modernist writers of the early 20th century were seen to have been a product of the growing contemporary desire to create innovative modes of expression and to break with the past, Romantic and Victorian women had a shared concern with exploring the experiences particular to their sex.
There is differing critical thought on how much knowledge of an author’s life should inform any interpretation and analysis of his work. Focusing on biographical detail can, perhaps, lead to reading links where there are none. For example, much of the criticism of Christopher Marlowe’s work frequently draws on (often presumed ideas about) the playwright’s life. The concern in Tamburlaine with religious belief, for instance, is thought perhaps to spring from Marlowe’s having been born ‘in the spiritual capital of England’ (Hopkins 23) and thus at the very centre of religious debate. Interpreting Marlowe’s work seems thus to be fuelled by the critical debate that persists about the relevance of his life to his work. Similarly, in the case of Caroline Norton it is difficult to ignore or dismiss the striking similarities between her tumultuous public (and well-publicised) life and the concerns in her work. In fact, most of the readily available information on Norton is biographical rather than critical. The prime issues in ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ – and, indeed, in the other poems in this collection – seem closely inspired by her own experiences.
Or is it the case that, as with Marlowe, the more interesting and complex the life, the greater temptation it is to relate it critically to the work? One major criticism of Norton made by some female contemporaries was that she was not radical enough, and that she took up certain causes only as a result of her own experience; that she wished to change only those things that adversely affected her own circumstances. Harriet Martineau, for example, felt that ‘Caroline’s reforms were never undertaken to help other women, but purely for her own selfish ends’ (Chedzoy 171).
In important ways, however, the character of Rosalie and her situation are not directly Norton’s own; this indicates Norton’s wider concerns. Norton explores the theme of inequality between women and men, looking at the fate of women who lack a male protector. It can be argued that this was a general rather than a particular concern.
In 1829, when The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems was published, Norton had experienced only a little of the inequality that was to plague her later on – yet this collection indicates that she is already concerned with the issue. Her wider consideration shows in this poetry, and is reinforced further by her 1836 poem, ‘A Voice from the Factories’, displaying a concern for an experience she does not seem to have had any part in: ‘Caroline knew nothing about the life of textile mills; she had probably never been in one’ (Chedzoy 147).
Therefore, Norton’s poetry may be interpreted as reflecting the general experience of women as well as her much more specific concerns. Norton’s exploration of the unhappy, alienated women in The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems indicates a growing awareness of women’s lives – and she has enough affinity with the feelings involved to present sympathetic female leads.
In this essay I will explore issues of biographical relevance and the concerns of women in the 1820s and 1830s. Love and duty were paramount to the lives of most women at this time, and Norton explores the vulnerable position of women when they are betrayed – or indeed, when they are themselves seen to be the betrayers.
In The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems, much attention is paid to the reliance of women on men, and how weak women’s position in society becomes when men betray them. Caroline Norton’s position in life seems undoubtedly to have inspired her general concerns with the society she lived in. Furthermore, as one of her earliest works, this collection suggests the beginning of her concerns with women and the way in which their lives were beyond their own control to a much greater extent than men’s were.
The varying nature of love seems to be explored chiefly in the title poem of Norton’s 1829 collection. One difficult area for any writer of this period to portray is that of sexual love. As Dann cites in her essay, ‘The Representation of Physical Allure in Nineteenth-century Novels’, ‘Nineteenth-century novelists wisely paid great attention to decency’ (236) as their novels would have to be suitable for all ages if they were to be successful. Their presentation of ‘sexual magnetism’ (236) had to be conveyed in a way that would not embarrass or offend any member of a family reading the work out loud, this being a ‘widespread habit’ (236). Although Dann is looking at novels specifically, it is a point that is just as relevant to poetry. Norton, too, had to convey certain taboo issues without compromising the reader, or herself as a female writer. One review of Norton’s poetry said ‘one may safely put it in his library’ (<http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/moa_browse.html>), indicating the importance that her work be considered ‘safe’, so that ‘he’ – presumably the male head of a household – could not fear it falling into the hands of any person in his family.
Norton had to make the sexual attraction between Arthur and Rosalie clear to the reader, to help to explain what makes Rosalie fall in love and elope with Arthur. This is done extremely delicately. Generally, she implies that Rosalie’s attraction results from the words Arthur uses with her. Arthur ‘used to praise’ (Norton 1:XVIII:12) her and even ‘call’d to witness his the glorious heavens above’ (1:XVII:11), indicating how he has charmed her by using her religious faith to somehow legitimise their relationship. The warning the reader receives in the opening stanzas of the poem, that Rosalie has been ‘left alone’ (1:III:4), alerts the reader to the sinister side of this charm and to read it rather as manipulation. The implication is that Arthur used his awareness of Rosalie’s naïveté to control her affections.
However, while Rosalie dismisses these early verbal charms (‘It matters not/ How, after that, Lord Arthur won my love’ [1:XVII:11)), Arthur’s physical allure is dwelt on. Rosalie remembers ‘The cheek that blushed at his impassioned gaze’ (1:XVIII:12), indicative of her female modesty but also her recognition of his sexual overtures. In addition, the references to lips and eyes suggest sensuality, as the most sensitive and intimate parts of the face. There is a general concern with the eyes in Norton’s collection, with frequent references to them. This highlights the significance of the eyes to love, whether it be physical or familial, as an intimate point. In addition, the gaze has connotations of a dreamy trance. Arthur is sexually (‘impassioned’) mesmerised (‘gaze’) by Rosalie, yet also causes a sort of hypnosis with his trance-like stares. This mesmerising quality of Arthur’s is reiterated several times. For example, Rosalie refers to a charm around her heart (1:XV:10) and also to the ‘fairy spot’ (2:III:21) that Arthur buys a cottage in – both references suggestive of the magical, trance-like hold Arthur seems to have over Rosalie.
In addition, Rosalie refers to their frequent tender meetings as causing her ‘guilt and woe’ (1:XIX:12). They meet alone and in secret, implying that this is more than innocent courting. Rosalie would have no reason to think her father would be concerned if his daughter were merely being courted for marriage (as she believed) by a wealthy suitor.
Of course, the most blatant indication of the sexual nature of Rosalie and Arthur’s attraction is that Rosalie falls pregnant before they are married. This story is strikingly similar to that of Agnes in Amelia Opie’s The Father and Daughter, who is persuaded to leave her father on the promise of a marriage which never materialises. Agnes, too, gets pregnant, worsening her status in the world. It is important for Norton, as for Opie, to clear – to a degree – their heroines of blame. Women who eloped with men – and, even worse, had illegitimate children – were regarded as ‘fallen’ by society. As Sutphin explores, contemporary thinking would have been that there was a ‘strong connection … made between prostitutes and women living with men’ (Sutphin 517).
While Rosalie and Agnes receive society’s censure and discrimination, both Norton and Opie make clear that this is not entirely fair. Rosalie is depicted as a naïve innocent who is manipulated by a predatory man. In fact, Arthur is not presented as having any redeeming features, always selfishly concerned with his own sufferings (‘I have suffered equal pain’ [Norton 2:L:45]) and continually breaking his promises. Rosalie’s continual protestations of forgiveness for him serve only to expose his heartlessness and villainy further. Agnes, too, is presented as impressionable – Opie actually going further to vindicate her by praising her virtues and talents. This shows us Agnes as an inherently virtuous girl (proven by her conduct throughout the book) who has fallen victim to a dangerous and abhorrent man. Both Agnes and Rosalie, assured that they are ‘bride[s] to be’ (1:XXIV:15), are vulnerable to such manipulation.
This representation of sexual love in Norton’s poetry is a more adult aspect which she manages to include without transgressing the rules of 19th-century conduct. While many contemporary readers may have found Rosalie’s and Agnes’ behaviour distasteful, Norton and Opie manage to invoke sympathy for them – while also, however, ensuring they do not live out happy lives. Rosalie lives in a kind of purgatory, just waiting miserably to live out her punishment, die and receive peace in Heaven. The frequent references to Rosalie’s religious faith indicate that she accepts she has to live desolately on earth before being embraced by Heaven, as punishment for her actions.
Rosalie’s bitter lamentations about the past seem like those of a warning ghost, especially as she directly requests the reader’s understanding. In stanza XLIV (3:72) Rosalie compares the relief that death would be to the life she once lived. It is as if she is looking from beyond the grave and recognising this now. Rosalie is alive as the poem ends, but clearly she feels that she hasn’t any sort of life; her body survives but her spirit is moribund.
This device of seeming to speak from the grave, which emerges from a first reading of ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’, could be said to be born out of an expectation that ‘fallen women’ in fiction must be punished and ‘nearly always die’ (Sutphin 528). Writers of 19th-century fiction tended to have to mete out some sort of punishment to maintain a certain moral standard. Opie, too, displays Agnes working out her ‘wrongs’ and, like Norton, ensures that the reader will be sympathetic enough to care for the character – but neither writer can allow their character to be ultimately happy.
In all of these examples it seems that female ‘weakness’ or indulgence in sexual relationships out of wedlock is something that cannot be condoned. On the one hand Norton seems actively to support this view rather than just adopting it in her work for social decency’s sake. Her attitude to Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, was that ‘she could not approve of this woman who … lived with a man not her husband’ (Chedzoy 143). Yet Norton also enjoyed courting scandal – but perhaps such blatant scandal (as opposed to just implied immorality) was repellent even to her.
A love that is represented as more desirable and beneficial than sexual love is familial love. A key part of ‘The Sorrow of Rosalie’ is the relationship between Rosalie and her father. No fault or crack in this relationship seems to be present; Rosalie does not leave him to get away from him but rather does so under the influence of Arthur’s promises. Her father is represented as ‘fond’ (Norton 1:XXVII:16), ‘mild’ (1:XXVIII:17) and ‘placid’ (1:X:8). Rosalie remembers him lovingly and as loving her. The reader is led to regard her father as a harmless and helpless man, almost an object of pity. His ‘silvery hairs’ (1:X:8) indicate his age, and to this is added a certain careworn aspect. He has become this calm, quiet man because ‘Fortune’s sad reverses keenly tried’ him (1:VIII:7). He has been aged not only by years but by his experiences. This makes Rosalie’s father a figure who seems to need his daughter. Like Agnes’ father, he seems to have only his daughter left to bring him comfort and happiness. The way he is described could be a sign of Rosalie’s guilt – no fault is shown in her father because she can think only of how she betrayed him, and thus perhaps views him only sentimentally. However, the reader is convinced of her father’s goodness and neediness, and this accentuates our awareness of the shame Rosalie feels. In the manner in which Rosalie’s and Agnes’ lives proceed after they leave their fathers, parental love is highlighted as worthy and important.
There is a sense that while these young men cannot be trusted, fathers are figures of unshakeable support and love; that it is they Rosalie and Agnes should have been guided by, not Arthur or Clifford. Rosalie and Agnes both feel they can return to their fathers (and both desire it) when the rest of the world seems formidable. Rosalie is certain that while she is continuously rejected by society, her father ‘would not harshly blame’ (1829:3:VI:53). In the same stanza she also refers to God, whom she has never lost faith in. Therefore a link is made between the protective visions of her father and God. Her fear of her father’s reaction has been born out of her own sense of shame; the reader is never led to doubt the love or the potential of forgiveness from her father.
Rosalie and Agnes are crushed to find their fathers are not as they left them: Rosalie’s is dead and Agnes’ has gone mad. This is the harshest punishment dealt out to these daughters, that they have initiated these alterations in their fathers. Due to the link between Rosalie’s father and God, Rosalie’s spirit is doubly shaken by her father’s death, yet as a symbol of hope she never loses her faith in God, using it as a second chance to alleviate her guilt over her inconstancy to her father.
The fact that there is no mention of a mother in these poems seems to indicate an interesting reflection on family dynamics. The father is the wise, guiding figure who should be listened to and respected. When both Rosalie and Agnes diverge from the wishes of their father, they receive misery. This could be read as a reflection of Norton’s own idealised image of a father, as her own father died when she was only nine years old. The daughter’s role is exposed as naïve and vulnerable, in need of guidance. Both Rosalie and Agnes are shown as gullible, open to sexual manipulation and therefore in need of a firm but fair father. Perhaps these father figures are in fact being criticised, as they do not succeed in guiding their daughters. They are not firm enough and are dealt their own punishment, by way of their daughters’ departures and their own subsequent death or madness. Is Norton being critical of a life without a firm father figure, regretting her own lack and perhaps feeling that her own mistakes (as in marrying her own form of manipulative man) arose as a result of having no fatherly guidance? Chedzoy asserts that one of Norton’s other works, ‘The Templar’s Tale’, shows that ‘she clearly wishes that she had had a father who might have prevented her marriage to such a violent man’ (1992:90). Therefore, perhaps ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’, too, shows Norton using her work as ‘wish-fulfilment’ (1992:90) for her own desire for a protecting father.
This idea is perhaps supported by the representation of the mother in the poem ‘Marriage and Love’. Norton here represents a materialistic mother, not concerned with what happiness love could bring her daughter, but only with practicalities and riches:
What put it in your head
Here Laura’s mother is concerned about the wealth and, in addition, how she will personally benefit from her daughter’s marriage. The tone is dismissive of Laura’s ‘Romantic … folly’, the simplistic rhyming couplets accentuating her mother’s shallowness. Furthermore, the poem cites that the world has ‘Taught her [Laura] to fear all dowagers and mothers,/Smile on gay lords, and cut their younger brothers’ (1829:116). While the sense of these social rules is undermined again by the rhyming couplets, Laura questions only the ‘last rule’ (1829:117) about the men, suggesting an acceptance and perhaps the truth of the wisdom of mistrusting one’s mother.
This unflattering portrayal of a mother (and mothers generally, due to the suggestion of fearing them as a group) could reflect Norton’s experience of her own mother. While Norton’s family did seem to have been generally very caring and supportive, her mother does seem to have perhaps applied pressure on Caroline to marry George Norton (<http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wnorton.htm >) for financial reasons. Another parallel with Laura’s situation is that Caroline, too, had a younger sister who was soon to be open to considering marriage proposals. Furthermore, Laura is deceived into thinking that her husband is bearable when actually he is harsh and stupid – characteristics which George Norton was also accused of. This implies an autobiographical angle to the family and marriage portrayed in ‘Marriage and Love’, indicating perhaps a link between the mother in the poem and Norton’s own mother.
These representations of mothers and fathers in Norton’s poetry seem to show distinctions between the two parental figures and shed light on Norton’s idea of a daughter’s needs from her parents. It is thus significant that Rosalie’s only parent is her father, as having betrayed this most sensible and wise parent increases her level of guilt.
Norton’s representation of the father/daughter relationship in ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ as protector/innocent speaks to the notion of duty in this poem. Rosalie feels indebted to her father as she recalls all the love he has given her. In 19th-century England, children were expected to follow the wishes of their parents, and the fact that Rosalie’s father seems to be a wise and loving fuide shows the sense of being dutiful. Her father also seems to have been the instigator of Rosalie’s religious faith, ‘for he loved to hear/The Bible read by his loved child alone’ (Norton, 1829:1:XXVII:16), exposing a further strand of his wise guidance. Rosalie’s crime seems greater because she breaks with her duty not only to her father, but also to God. The shock of her father’s dying in her absence leads to her greater dependency on her faith. ‘If pardon may be found for her who roved,/And left thee lonely – oh! may Heaven, mayest thou be moved!’ (Norton, 1829:3:XXVI:63). She can rely only on the forgiveness and help of God after her father’s death. Despite all her sorrows, climaxing in the death of her baby, Rosalie is still consoled by her remaining protector, ‘With but my Bible, feel not quite alone’ (1829:3:LIII:76).
Familial and religious duty appears to be promoted in ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’; when these duties are corrupted, punishment ensues. The death of Rosalie’s son Albert seems to be yet another punishment for her relationship with Arthur, Albert acting as an illegal symbol of this. However, Rosalie’s unbending duty and love for her son are rewarded as they ensure her release from jail. The fact that she steals for her son’s benefit, not her own, pardons her. However, this is a dubious reprieve for Rosalie, as her release is inconsequential to her when compared to her losses. Yet it is symbolic as a reward for her parental duty. Furthermore, the fact that she steals a jewelled cross is significant of an acknowledgement of her religious duty. The cross is dropped by an unfeeling woman, as if presented to Rosalie; she does not actively steal it from the woman. The fact that it is dropped shows carelessness; the woman does not give religion proper attention. In addition, the jewels show how the woman is concerned with wealth and material things, corrupting the symbol of the cross and making this woman’s religious faith seem insincere. The way Rosalie exchanges the elaborate cross for basic bread indicates how religion should not be made material and should be respected for the good it achieves, in this case obtaining bread for a starving child. It could also be interpreted as a sign of God’s help: while Rosalie does continue to be punished, she has received the guidance of religion.
The inevitability of Rosalie’s fate seems to be a tenet of religious belief: while trespasses must be punished on earth, they will be forgiven in Heaven. Norton does not appear to be questioning the correctness of this view, as Rosalie never doubts the love or actions of her God. In fact, they are the only things she can rely on and find solace in.
Questioning of duty does come, however, in the form of Rosalie’s attitude towards Arthur. Like Opie’s Agnes, Rosalie seems to develop a sense of duty towards the young man. Arthur’s cunning leads Rosalie to believe they will be married, and she makes a vow ‘that Arthur should be more than all to me’ (1829:1:XXIV:15). This indicates a dismissal of her own identity and her acceptance of bending to Arthur’s will at all times. It acts like a vow of inferiority on her part, as he never returns a similar promise. Rosalie follows Arthur’s plans, even relinquishing her virtue for him, believing it to be a sort of duty to the man she thinks will be her husband. This indicates some tension in Norton’s consideration of the husband/wife relationship.
When she [Norton] was seventeen, and still at Wonersh School, she had started a poem entitled ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’. Now she took it out, dusted it off, and looked at it again. Of course she found it painfully childish, and reflected that a mere schoolgirl could know nothing of sorrow. But she could see how, from the depths of her married grief, she could rewrite it (Chedzoy, 1992:63).
While this paragraph shows evidence of the ‘novelettish intrusions’ (The Sunday Telegraph, <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>) that Norton’s biographer has been accused of, it does indicate how Norton was already experiencing in her young marriage the wrath of a husband who has not been obeyed. This stance has been interpreted as an indication of how Norton felt about the position of men and women in her society. Gruner observes that ‘Norton’s arguments tend especially to draw on the conventionalized mother’s role … her rhetoric consistently associates women with the private, the family, the sphere of domesticity’ (1997:306). This attitude Gruner sees displayed in Norton’s pamphlets, indicating a more traditional Victorian perspective in that Norton does not radically question the divisions between men’s and women’s roles. However, Perkins asserts that ‘it is not credible that she [Norton] really felt inferior to her vicious husband, but knew better than to say so outright’ (1993:117). This again refers to Norton’s public attitude, and seems just as reasonable as Gruner’s assertion. Norton was widely regarded as clever and perhaps was aware that, to be listened to, she should not appear overly radical. ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ seems to express a tension between the roles of women and men, not only with regards to women’s sense of duty but also to the fates peculiar to women (which shall be discussed later).
Norton seems to be somewhere between the traditional beliefs and the radical feminism of women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While Norton questioned the law’s view of women, clearly she did not go as far as Barrett Browning, who evidently challenged not only the legal but the social conception of women: ‘“My mind is naturally independent and spurns the subserviency of opinion which is generally considered as necessary to feminine softness”’ (in Moers, 1985:6). This sort of female autonomy and rejection of the inferiority ascribed to women is commonplace in today’s society, yet was extremely radical in Victorian life. Moore believes that Norton ‘required a husband whom she could revere and obey’; this indicates that ‘in this at least she was in tune with the age’ (1985:40).
It seems most likely that Norton did not question the distinctions made between men and women, as her poetry does not present extreme challenges to these. However, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ and ‘Marriage and Love’ do hint at the troubling nature of the position of women. While Norton does not advocate full freedom for women (demonstrated by the fact that her female protagonists are punished for their transgressions), and respects a woman’s need for a husband, she does speak with disquiet of the way in which women are required to rely on men, and of how women’s sense of duty leaves them vulnerable to manipulation.
The tension between gender distinctions that Norton has begun to explore in The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems is most clear in her development of the idea of betrayal. At a basic level Norton examines betrayal in terms of Rosalie’s departure from her father, yet this is more concerned with ideas of father/daughter relations than with the gender distinctions brought out by Arthur’s betrayal of Rosalie. Rosalie cites continuously that she forgives Arthur for his broken promises: ‘whom thou hadst injured and then left to die,/In death forgave thee – loved thee – pitied thee” (Norton, 1829:1:XIV:10). Rosalie believes – and wants Arthur to know – that she has forgiven him despite his awful betrayal of her trust. However, the tension behind this is highlighted by the inclusion of the idea of death and pity. Although, as discussed earlier, the tone frequently feels as if Rosalie is writing after her death, it is clear she is alive at the end of the poem, therefore if she forgives Arthur at her death, as she says, then she has not in fact forgiven him yet – unless she is referring to a metaphorical death (for example the death of her reputation). Bearing in mind Rosalie’s religious ideas of death and Heaven, however, I would assert that she means literal death here; Rosalie has strong impressions of her death and of the forgiveness she will receive in Heaven, suggesting that only then will she be able to offer it.
Furthermore, the idea of pity denotes a sense of Rosalie’s bitterness. She will pity Arthur because she believes he will feel shame and therefore suffer as she has done. The façade of forgiveness hides Rosalie’s bitterness towards Arthur, a bitterness that seems to have arisen from Arthur’s lack of suffering so far. Both have committed acts of betrayal, yet Rosalie seems acutely aware of her suffering compared to Arthur’s lack of it:
Oh Arthur! If thine eye should view these lines,
The extended images of riches (‘ruby’, ‘sparkling’), comfort (‘glow’, ‘brightly’, ‘pleasure’, ‘festive’) and the carefree (‘laugh’, ‘peals’, ‘slow’) are evidently bitterly dwelt on by Rosalie. She chooses to depict Arthur’s life in this way, and juxtaposes it with her own ‘pining’ ‘want and woe’. The scantiness of the information on her own life at this point, compared to his, indicates the luxury of his and the need in hers.
This comparison between their lifestyles is made even more clear when the reader gets more details of Rosalie’s life. The irony with which Rosalie treats his thoughtlessness degenerates into more patent bitterness: ‘Force thee, despite thyself, to think on me,/Cold and ungrateful’ (1829:1:XIV:10). Rosalie feels that Arthur implied an honourable promise to her, which she was constant to and which he betrayed, yet it is her own situation which has deteriorated as a result. This is made clearer as the poem continues and the reader learns that Arthur has been able to marry another and continue his comfortable life, whereas Rosalie is left begging for the most basic things for herself and their child. Thus Rosalie has been dealt a punishment for her actions, whereas Arthur has not.
This contrast is also made in ‘Marriage and Love’, where Laura leaves her abhorrent husband for the comfort of Francis. Yet Francis is inconstant in his love (like Arthur) and leaves Laura, resulting in her death. Yet ‘Francis, loved again, is happy now;/For he hath chosen him a gentle bride’ (1829:122) while Laura remains in her grave. Therefore, in both poems the men have been able to betray the hearts of the women who love them, and go on to be happy with another while the women they have left behind suffer for it. Both men appear to become tired of their first conquests (although their inconstancy directs the reader to consider that Laura and Rosalie are not the first); they never want to commit and they eventually dislike the women for the shame that the women have helped to bring upon them. Norton is thus looking at the troubling nature of how women and men live in 19th-century society. In ‘Marriage and Love’, Laura’s death is conveyed in the same way her marriage was:
And Laura blushed, and trembled, and – was married (1829:118)
This links Laura’s marriage with her death, which hints at the problems of married women – problems which Norton had begun to experience in her own life in 1829 and, later on, felt more acutely. It is clear that Norton links a woman’s marriage with her death as a way of highlighting ‘the notion, derived from their legal status, that after marriage women ceased to exist’ (Gruner, 1997:306). While it may appear that the similarity of tone used to describe Laura’s marriage and death supports this idea, I think it rather highlights society’s view – and exposes it as wrong. The tone of ‘Marriage and Love’, generated by the rhyming couplets, is light and dismissive – this reflects the irony with which Norton deals with these issues. It exposes the lack of significance and attention given to the discrepancies in the way men and women are expected to behave.
Furthermore, Norton gives the impression that love should play more of a role in marriage. As Laura’s mother exemplifies, society’s general attitude is to consider riches, not love, and this is how unhappy matches arise. The title ‘Marriage and Love’ shows the separation of these two elements, as if one does not have any bearing on the other. In Norton’s society they are not seen as mutually dependent; it is this that Norton highlights as problematic. The tone of the poem ironically dismisses the death and suffering of Laura, in a way that is symbolic of how society glosses over such tensions.
While Norton tends not to deal with Rosalie’s situation ironically, the same tensions and message are brought out. Rosalie has been let down by society in the way it has conditioned men like Arthur not to take love and marriage seriously. Arthur is displayed as an immature man, intent on his own sufferings rather than the affect of his actions on others. As Opie states of Clifford in The Father and Daughter, ‘But, selfish to the last moment of his existence, it was a consciousness of his own misery, not of that which he had inflicted’ (Opie, 1824:230). Norton’s further discussion of gender makes it clear that the differences between the fates of Arthur and Rosalie, Laura and Francis depict gender tensions, rather than isolated cases. It is sympathy for women that Norton wishes to highlight, and the betrayal they experience as a result of men’s actions.
To a modern reader this depiction may seem unfair to men, as Norton generalises young men as inconstant and also always able to keep their reputations and lives intact. However, it is vital to remember that in the society Norton lived in, this was Norton’s and many other women’s experience: they would be the ones to suffer in times of scandal. Mary Shelley (for her husband’s opinions), Lady Holland (for her divorce) and Norton herself were all ostracised from polite society for their part in a perceived scandal. Later in Norton’s life, at the time of the (George) Norton V Melbourne trial, Caroline Norton’s reputation suffered from the public implications of her supposed affair with Lord Melbourne. As Moore observes of the court trial,
[George] Norton admitted that he had never believed in it, but he had not hesitated to defame his wife’s name for, although Melbourne’s reputation was entirely undamaged, a woman, who was by her sex disqualified from employing counsel to defend her, was bound to suffer from such an accusation however unfounded (1985:43).
While Melbourne was embarrassed by the public nature of these quashed accusations and, prior to the trial, was harassed by the events, his reputation for admiring young ladies remained – and continued not to damage any aspect of his life. While male libertines were avoided as marriage material by worried parents, they managed to maintain their position in society. ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ shows Norton’s early concern with feminist issues, something that she would feel the full significance of later in her life.
The innocence and vulnerability of Rosalie, and also her heightened concern with doing her duty, signals that Norton clearly lays the blame on Arthur, who is presented as uncaring, manipulative and self-absorbed. Furthermore, through Rosalie, Norton develops a feminist ideology of sisterhood, of women helping other women when they have been discarded by society. After specifically requesting attention from ‘generous hearts’ (Norton, 1829:1:II:4), Rosalie desires ‘Oh, woman! in this hour of agony/Trample not rudely on the fallen one’ (1829:1:V:5). This indicates Norton’s ideas that women should have sympathy with each other, should not be manipulated by the ruling (patriarchal) notions of reputation. When Rosalie is left utterly desolate by the discovery of her father’s death, she is shocked by the way she is cast out of her only shelter – but she is even more shocked that ‘Woman to woman did this deed of cruelty’ (1829:3:XXXI:65). This signifies that Rosalie expected to be treated better by women, because they should feel more affinity to sufferings specific to their sex. She points out her tormentor’s gender, as if such treatment would be a given from a man, but is shocking when meted out by a woman. As Norton’s own circumstances led her to challenge the legal status of women in general, (‘she turned her sufferings to good account’ [Moore, 1985:53]), Rosalie’s experiences as a disreputable female furthers her consciousness of the disadvantages women suffer compared to men: ‘By him who yet shall rise with angel face,/Pleading for me, the lost and sinful of my race’ (Norton, 1829:3:LIII:76). While Rosalie could here be referring to the outcasts of humanity, it seems she is more specifically referring to the ‘race’ of women. The entire poem explores the ways men and women differ in their experiences; therefore it seems that Rosalie believes the angelic ghost of her son will plead for his mother, an outcast of society. Despite being the instigator of Rosalie’s sins, Arthur has not become ‘lost and sinful’ in the eyes of society. Norton’s own concerns become clear through Rosalie’s thoughts: she is increasingly aware of the gender discrimination occurring in 19th-century society. While Norton does not go so far as to question the rightness of a patriarchy – she is not asking for a rebellion against it – she does seem to highlight the fact that the treatment of women needs to be redressed.
I believe that this exploration of Norton’s work indicates that there is a relevant link between her writing and her life. Despite the suffering Norton experienced, even by the time The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale; with other poems came out she appears to have appreciated the attention her dramatic life had got her, and enjoyed using it in a fictionalised form. However, coupled with this was a definite compassion for the misery of others, shown by the sympathetic way she deals with Rosalie. Norton is not just using Rosalie for dramatic effect, but also as a poignant reminder of the realities of some women’s lives in 19th-century England.
Norton’s work can be considered in its own right, yet I believe more is brought to our reading if we consider the context of its production. An awareness of the position of women at this time increases our understanding of the issues of love, duty and betrayal – issues that were foremost in women’s lives. The focal points of women’s lives were finding a husband and behaving appropriately to secure society’s approval. It was vital to adhere to the moral standards set for women at the time, and Norton explores this through the characters of Rosalie and Laura, depicting through them the sort of humiliation a woman could expect if she transgressed.
In addition, a specific awareness of Norton’s own life helps with the interpretation of the particular issues raised, such as a sense of betrayal in her marriage. It is relevant to consider Norton’s experiences alongside any critical reading of her work, since they seem to have informed her writing greatly and allow for a deeper understanding of why she chose to highlight certain ideas. Without an awareness of the expectations placed upon Norton and other women of her day, and the issues that were a shared focus of their lives, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ and some of the shorter poems are less accessible to a modern reader. What is required is an understanding of the significance of these expectations and issues to a woman at this point in history.
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