“In Serious Verse”: the politics and poetics of Caroline Norton’s A Voice from the Factories

26 August 2020

Gender and Sexuality | Literature | Politics

This blog includes temporary free access to "Manuscript, with marked proofs, ‘A Voice from the Factories’, by Caroline Norton” from the Adam Matthew resource Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive. Click here or on the image of the text below to view this document for free until 25th September 2020.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877), social reformer and John Murray author. Portrait by George Hayter, n.d. Access via Wikimedia Commons.

Beautiful, quick-witted but with her family in reduced circumstances after her father’s death in South Africa, the 19-year-old Caroline Sheridan married George Norton, a barrister, Tory MP for Guildford and ten years her senior, to help her mother’s unstable financial situation. Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, called her husband “a stupid brute” and in 1836, Caroline left her unhappy and abusive marriage. George retaliated by taking her independent earnings from writing, abducting their three children and suing Lord Melbourne for “criminal conversation” with Caroline (Victorian legalese for adultery) in a scandal that sent shock waves through Victorian England and was fictionalised by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers.

That same year – quite possibly the most tumultuous of her life – Caroline’s poem A Voice from the Factories was published by John Murray. Her poetry, like her life, refused to conform to expectations. Caroline uses the verse form Edmund Spenser created for his allegorical Tudor epic The Faerie Queene: the Spenserian stanza. Works like Lord Byron’s Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which took the John Murray publishing house by storm, had revived the form in the early 19th century. Caroline’s adoption of it firmly situates the shape of her poem in the fashionable literary circles of the younger rebel generation of Romantics, while refashioning its association with travel, legend and melancholy fatigue of aristocratic men by dealing with the pressing social and political concerns of her day: child labour, class difference and poverty.

Caroline Norton's 'A Voice from the Factories' (1836). © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

In ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, published four years before A Voice from the Factories, Alfred Lord Tennyson uses the final, longer hexameter line characteristic of the Spenserian stanza to perform the languid impotence of drugged heroes from Greek legends. Norton’s final lines can sound like a cry at a political rally, a heckle in the audience that holds those on the stage accountable, with the intensity of collective address:

Saved for your children! Fathers, is there not
A plaintive magic in the name of child,
Which makes you feel compassion for their lot
On whom Prosperity hath never smiled?
When with your OWN an hour hath been beguiled
(For whom you hoard the still increasing store),
Surely, against the face of Pity mild,
Heart-hardening Custom vainly bars the door,
For that less favoured race–THE CHILDREN OF THE POOR.

Should there be any mistake of her intentions for the effect of the poem, Norton adds "In Serious Verse" under the title of the poem. Even her epigraph comes from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish political economist who edited Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. For Caroline, political campaigning and writing poetry went hand in hand: she devoted the rest of her life campaigning for women’s rights that led directly to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870. In many ways, her poetry anticipates Mario Cuomo’s sentiment that you govern in prose, but “campaign in poetry”. In a time when women could not govern democratically, Caroline mobilised the power of poetry to mount political campaigns – and successfully reformed the legal rights of women in the process.

For more on strong, independent women see last week's blog on Spenser's Britomart here.

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About the Author

Dr Laura Blomvall

Dr Laura Blomvall

I joined Adam Matthew in August 2019 in the Outreach team, liaising with the academic and library communities to support their engagement with digital resources in their research, teaching and learning. I completed a PhD in Modern Literature in March 2019, and I have had my research published by Cambridge University Press, Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge, Taylor and Francis and several academic journals.