Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna Essay - Critical Essays

Tonna, Charlotte Elizabeth


Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna 1790-1846

(Full name Charlotte Elizabeth Browne Phelan Tonna; also published as Charlotte Elizabeth and The Watchman) English novelist, poet, editor, and writer of short stories, religious tracts, travel literature, and children's stories.

Tonna was a tireless advocate for labor reform who is best known for her 1841 novel Helen Fleetwood: A Tale of the Factories. Tonna researched and exposed the deplorable working conditions in English factories, particularly for women, in both fictional and non-fictional works. She also produced numerous works for children and a number of religious tracts, especially early in her career. Tonna served as editor of various religious periodicals late in her life, and has been credited with improving content and sales.

Biographical Information

Tonna was born October 1, 1790, in Norwich, England, to the Reverend and Mrs. Michael Browne. Her father was the rector of St. Giles, and Tonna and her brother were exposed to the Protestant religion from an early age. Tonna suffered total blindness early in her life, a condition that proved temporary; however, the treatment used to restore her sight resulted in complete and permanent loss of hearing, depriving her of the music she loved. She turned to books for comfort, reading not only the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, but fairy tales and romantic novels as well. Later in life, after her conversion to Evangelicalism, she would denounce her total immersion in the imaginative world of literature as a foolish waste of time.

Tonna resolved to earn her living as a writer when her father's sudden death resulted in financial hardship for her family. She quickly married Captain George Phelan, whom she met in London, and accompanied him to Nova Scotia for two years, and then to Ireland. Tonna fell in love with the country and the people, and began producing religious tracts for the Dublin Tract Society, a venture that proved financially successful and established her reputation as an important religious writer. Tonna moved to England after her husband deserted her and began writing under the name Charlotte Elizabeth in order to prevent Phelan from appropriating the proceeds from her literary career. Phelan died in 1837 and four years later Tonna married Lewis Hippolytus Tonna, a religious writer twenty-two years her junior. He shared her political and religious views and encouraged her to speak out against the religious and industrial establishment. That same year Tonna published the work for which she is best known, Helen Fleetwood, as well as her autobiography Personal Recollections. In 1844, Tonna was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the next two years battling the disease and continued to write whenever possible, resorting to dictation in the last months of her life. She died on July 13, 1846.

Major Works

Tonna's first publications were untitled religious tracts espousing her ultra-conservative Protestant views, which she began producing in the early 1820s. In 1824 she published her first novel, Derry: A Tale of Revolution in 1688, which was followed by a second novel, Combination in 1832, and a travel narrative, Letters from Ireland, 1837 in 1838. Her most important work was the novel Helen Fleetwood, a fictional account of a family destroyed by industrialization, based on the conditions of factory life that had been revealed in various parliamentary reports. Tonna was particularly sensitive to the hardships endured by women and children in mills and factories, and her novel was intended to inspire not only protective legislation on their behalf, but also private philanthropy to alleviate their suffering. Her 1844 novel The Wrongs of Woman specifically addressed the abuses women and children endured in the garment industry. Its four sections—“Milliners and Dressmakers,” “The Forsaken Home,” “The Little Pin Headers,” and “The Lace Runners”—had originally been published separately in The Christian Lady's Magazine. Tonna's most important nonfiction work was The Perils of the Nation: An Appeal to the Legislature, the Clergy, and the Higher and Middle Classes (1843), a well-researched report on abusive factory conditions commissioned by the Christian Influence Society in an effort to promote corrective legislation.

In addition to her writing, Tonna served successfully as editor of The Christian Lady's Magazine (1843-46); of The Protestant Magazine (1841-45); and of The Protestant Annual (1841-46). She made substantial contributions to all three periodicals, producing essays, short stories, and serialized novels under the pen names “The Watchman” and “Charlotte Elizabeth.”

Critical Reception

Though Tonna was a prolific and popular writer during her lifetime, her work has been largely ignored until the late twentieth century. Her religious tracts were controversial even in her own time because of the narrowness of her views and the extreme bias she displayed against Catholicism. Even her fellow-Evangelicals were forced to distance themselves from the extremism revealed in her writing. Her reputation as a major contributor to the social problem novel, though, remains considerable even today. Ivanka Kovačević and S. B. Kanner compare Tonna to other nineteenth-century authors writing within the genre, claiming that she was able to avoid the apparent acceptance of the evils of industrialism exhibited by Hannah More and Harriet Martineau, as well as the sentimentalism and melodrama associated with Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. Tonna was “a superb propagandist,” according to Kovačević and Kanner, and she was genuinely motivated by the suffering of the women and children she depicted in her stories. Monica Correa Fryckstedt has examined Tonna's work as the editor of The Christian Lady's Magazine from 1834 to 1846, and praises her talents as a journalist. The magazine's success, according to Fryckstedt, was the direct result of Tonna's numerous personal contributions in the form of editorials, book reviews, serialized fiction, and autobiographical essays. Deborah Kaplan maintains that Tonna's most important contribution to the history of English literature was her representation of working-class women to the middle and upper classes. She was able, according to Kaplan, to translate the dry facts of parliamentary reports—a largely male discourse—into fictional accounts that were far more accessible to her female readers. As a result, “her industrial fictions show these readers that women whom they assumed to be different, unfamiliar, ‘other’ are, in fact, like themselves.”

Principal Works

Derry: A Tale of Revolution in 1688 [also published as The Siege of Derry; or, Sufferings of the Protestants: A Tale of the Revolution] (novel and religious tract) 1824

Rachel. A Tale [also published as The Flower of Innocence; or, Rachel. A True Narrative: With Other Tales] (juvenilia) 1826

The Simple Flower (juvenilia) 1826

The Rockite, An Irish Story (religious tract) 1829

Tales and Illustrations. 2 vols. (juvenilia) 1830

Works. 2 vols. (short stories, essays, juvenilia, prose) 1830; enlarged and reprinted as The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth. 3 vols. 1844-45

Combination (novel) 1832

The Museum [also published as Pleasure and Profit: or Time Well Spent and Glimpses of the Past] (juvenilia) 1832

The Happy Mute; or, the Dumb Child's Appeal [also published as Happy Mute] (juvenilia) 1833

Chapters on Flowers [also published as Floral Biography; or Chapters on Flowers] (nonfiction) 1836; enlarged and reprinted as The Flower Garden; or Chapters on Flowers 1840

The English Martyrology [edited and abridged by Tonna]. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1837

Letters from Ireland, MDCCCXXXVII (travel essay) 1838

Conformity (religious tract) 1841

Falsehood and Truth (religious tract) 1841

Helen Fleetwood: A Tale of the Factories (novel) 1841

Personal Recollections (autobiography) 1841; enlarged and reprinted as Life of Charlotte Elizabeth, as Contained in her Personal Recollections and Personal Recollections, with Explanatory Notes 1848

The Protestant Annual [editor and contributor] (periodical) 1841-46

The Protestant Magazine [editor and contributor] (periodical) 1841-45

The Christian Lady's Magazine [editor and contributor] (periodical) 1843-46

Judah's Lion (juvenilia) 1843

The Perils of the Nation: An Appeal to the Legislature, the Clergy, and the Higher and Middle Classes (nonfiction) 1843

*The Wrongs of Woman [also published as The Wrongs of Women]. 2 vols. (novel) 1843-44

Kindness to Animals [also published as Kindness to Animals; or, The Sin of Cruelty Exposed and Rebuked] (juvenilia) 1844

*Published as four novelettes in the Christian Lady's Magazine: “Milliners and Dressmakers,” “The Forsaken Home,” “The Little Pin Headers,” and “The Lace Runners”


Ivanka Kovačević and S. B. Kanner (essay date September 1970)

SOURCE: Kovačević, Ivanka and S. B. Kanner. “Blue Book Into Novel: The Forgotten Industrial Fiction of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25, no. 2 (September 1970): 152-73.

[In the following essay, Kovačević and Kanner reflect on the importance of Tonna as an author who was both “of her time and at the same time ahead of it.”]

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, by her persistent reading of Government reports, laboured to penetrate the underground life of thousands of women hidden away in small and dirty shops. Her exhaustive treatment of so large a body of employment, unknown perhaps to all contemporary women but Harriet...

(The entire section is 9040 words.)

Monica Correa Fryckstedt (essay date summer 1981)

SOURCE: Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna & The Christian Lady's Magazine.Victorian Periodicals Review 14, no. 2 (summer 1981): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Fryckstedt examines Tonna's editorship of The Christian Lady's Magazine.]

With the exception of Wanda Fraiken Neff's stray remarks, The Christian Lady's Magazine (1834-49) has received no attention from literary scholars.1The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature merely notes that Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna was its editor from 1834 to 1846, and Alison Adburgham, E. M. Palmegiano and Ivanka Kovačević also content themselves with only a...

(The entire section is 4565 words.)

Joseph Kestner (essay date fall 1983)

SOURCE: Kestner, Joseph. “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's The Wrongs of Woman: Female Industrial Protest.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2, no. 2 (fall 1983): 193-214.

[In the following essay, Kestner discusses the cultural and factual basis of The Wrongs of Woman.]

In the opening paragraph of his essay Chartism (1839), Thomas Carlyle warned the British public about the “Condition-of-England Question,” calling for national inquiry about social abuses:

A feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the Working Classes is a rather ominous matter at present; that something ought to be...

(The entire section is 9857 words.)

Deborah Kaplan (essay date spring 1985)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Deborah. “The Woman Worker in Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Fiction.” Mosaic: Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 18, no. 2 (spring 1985): 51-63.

[In the following essay, Kaplan explores Tonna's role in the re-conceptualization of the working class.]

“To the Victorians belongs the discovery of the woman worker as an object of pity,” Wanda Neff suggests in her now classic study of Victorian Working Women.1 Although women had always labored, the conditions of their work—indeed, the very idea of women working—began to evoke shock as well as pity in the 1830s and 1840s, in the decades in which the ideology of...

(The entire section is 6240 words.)

Mary J. Corbett (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Corbett, Mary J. “Feminine Authorship and Spiritual Authority in Victorian Women Writers' Autobiographies.” Women's Studies 18 (1990): 13-29.

[In the following essay, Corbett studies the influence of Tonna's evangelical Protestant views on her writing.]

In a recent book on women's autobiography, Sidonie Smith has argued that “the woman who writes autobiography is doubly estranged when she enters the autobiographical contract,” with her estrangement founded on woman's historical subordination to male discourse and on her problematic relation to a reading audience always already configured as male. By usurping the male power of speech and writing, the...

(The entire section is 7835 words.)

Christine L. Krueger (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Krueger, Christine L. “Witnessing Women: Trial Testimony in Novels by Tonna, Gaskell, and Eliot.” In Representing Women: Law, Literature, and Feminism, edited by Susan S. Heinzelman and Zipporah B. Wiseman, pp. 337-55. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Krueger offers a comparison of courtroom scenes in novels by Tonna, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, discussing in particular the female participants' ability to negotiate self-identity in a patriarchal setting.]

“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”


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Patricia E. Johnson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Johnson, Patricia E. “Naming the Unnameable: Sexual Harassment in Novels of Industry.” In Hidden Hands: Working-Class Women and Victorian Social-Problem Fiction, edited by Patricia E. Johnson, pp. 45-70. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson describes the elements of the Victorian social-problem novel in Helen Fleetwood, focusing especially on the work's frank depiction and criticism of England's industrial system.]

“The poor harassed girl.”

Helen Fleetwood

In Helen Fleetwood, the narrator describes the effects of factory work...

(The entire section is 2995 words.)

Further Reading


Feldman, Paula R. “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” In British Women Poets of the Romantic Era—An Anthology, edited by Paula R. Feldman, pp. 781-84. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Provides a brief biographical overview of Tonna's life.

Fryckstedt, Monica C. “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna: A Forgotten Evangelical Writer.” Studia Neophilologica 11, no. 1 (1980): 79-102.

Presents a timeline of Tonna's life, noting influential people and events.

Moers, Ellen. “Epic Age: Part History of Literary Women.” In Literary Women, edited by Ellen Moers, pp. 24-26....

(The entire section is 347 words.)