Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”