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Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) was one of the most outstanding, yet overlooked, polemical writers and social reformers of the early Victorian period. She published a great many novels, religious pamphlets, moral tales for children, poems, and essays on the factory system. She edited and wrote for the influential Christian Lady’s Magazine (1836-1846) and The Protestant Magazine (1841-1846), in which she often gave vent to her intense anti-Catholicism. Apart from religious matters, she was also much concerned with current social issues, such as slavery and female and child employment in industry.

Tonna, who also wrote poems in various periods of her life, is now mostly remembered for her protest poetry, such as “The Maiden City” and “No Surrender,” and abolitionist “On the Flogging of Women,” and “The Orangeman’s Submission” — this last in support of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland,

Unlike moderate Evangelicals, who believed that poverty and distress are part of God’s plan, Tonna considered government intervention into industrial relations necessary and providential. As a radical Evangelical social commentator, Charlotte Elizabeth contributed significantly to the debate about the treatment of factory workers, especially women and children. Tonna exposed to the general public the subhuman conditions of the early factory system and strongly condemned the employment of women and children in industrial mills and sweatshops. She called vehemently on her middle-class female readers to protect the labouring classes from the excesses of uncontrolled industrialisation.

Fiction As a Medium of Social Criticism

Charlotte Elizabeth, as she preferred to call herself, contested the opinion of many Evangelicals that novels were mostly lies and hence harmful, especially to young women. On the contrary, she considered imaginative fiction a medium that contributes effectively to public debate and social amelioration. Margaret Beetham asserts that “Tonna and her magazine pioneered the use of fiction to debate ’the Condition of England’ question, as it came to be known.” (50)

Tonna was one of the first English writers who used fictional narratives in order to give voice to the underprivileged and marginalised members of society, such as female and child labourers. Admittedly, she saw no value in popular sentimental novels that were available in lending libraries, but she treated literary fiction as an instrument of social influence and she used the novel as a repository of social conscience and a vehicle for disseminating moral and social issues. Christine L. Krueger has pointed out that Tonna used narrative fiction as a form of political sermon.

With Helen Fleetwood she was creating something new: a political sermon in novel form, convicting its audience of the sins of economic exploitation and dereliction of duty. Tonna is the prophet of reality, proclaiming an unadulterated vision of factory conditions as reported in the blue books. Taking on herself the role of a prophet in the Dives and Lazarus parable, she is the evangelist of reform seeking her reader’s conversion to a new sense of responsibility for their working-class brothers and sisters. The novel provided her with strategies for effecting these goals. [139]

Believing in the ameliorative function of literature, she effectively combined narrative fiction with Evangelical preaching in order to show the reading public the immoral exploitation of factory workers and promulgate conservative social reform in England. As Mary Lenard has noted,

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna played a crucial part in forming a cultural discourse of social reform that perfectly fulfilled the cultural needs created by the material and historical conditions of early-nineteenth-century England, and continued to dominate Victorian literature for decades to come. [68]

This discourse about social reform and industrialism is manifested in a number of her Condition-of -England novels, which reveal relations of power and authority in Victorian society as well as the ways their authors communicate with readers and appeal to social conscience.

Domestic Feminism

Dominant pre-Victorian and Victorian ideologies drew a clear distinction between the male and female experience. Men secured for themselves the public sphere whereas home was to be the sphere of women — at least women of the prosperous classes, since in the early Victorian period, mills and mines employed women alongside men. Their employment became the frequent focus of heated social debates, since many reformers criticised the employment of women and children in factories, which, they believed, led to the moral and physical degradation of the working-class family. Instead they propounded domestic ideology which placed women and children within home. Thus the essential aim of domestic feminism was that a woman, especially a mother, should have the right not to have to work outside home. In other words, reformers like Tonna believed working-class women and children should have essentially the same protection (and confinement) as those of the classes above them.

Like a number of conservative social reformers in early-Victorian England, Charlotte Elizabeth advocated domestic ideology in the time of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of England. Tonna, who realized that the Industrial Revolution was an unavoidable historical development, nonetheless emphatically called for curtailing its immoral and inhumane effects, in particular the social degradation and dehumanisation of the working classes. Most working class families led extremely hard lives, which were strictly controlled by the long working hours in the mills and fluctuations on the labour market. Unlike middle-class wives, working-class women could not be the full-time guardians of the home. Tonna supported legislation aimed at reducing the long working hours of women and children.

As an ardent advocate of domestic feminism, she believed that home is the proper place for a woman to fulfill her maternal duties. However, since she also endorsed the Victorian ideal of women’s moral superiority, she called on women to act as contributing members of society. Charlotte Elizabeth believed that women must turn their attention to the deleterious social effects of the Industrial Revolution. Being conservative and Evangelical, like her mentor Hannah More, Charlotte Elizabeth was much concerned about the breakdown of the traditional paternalistic economy and therefore advocated legislative reforms that would provide relief to working mothers and save their children from debilitating factory work. Although Charlotte Elizabeth might not fit twenty-first-century feminist expectations, she deserves to be included in the tradition of conservative literary feminism represented in Victorian England by Hannah More, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, Frances Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Frances Power Cobbe.

Helen Fleetwood

Tonna’s most popular novel, Helen Fleetwood: A Tale of the Factories — first serialised between 1839 and March 1841 in The Christian Lady’s Magazine and then published in book form in 1841 — exposed one of the Industrial Revolution's greatst horrors, child labour in cotton mills. Doing research for her novel, she made exhaustive studies of government reports, particularly the testimonies of female and child operatives contained in the Sadler Report of 1832 and Parliamentary blue books. The novel offers a message similar to Thomas Carlyle’s plea for a public debate about the Condition-of-England Question, which he formulated in his essay Chartism (1839). Like Carlyle, Charlotte Elizabeth warned about the social consequences of rapid industrialisation, which weakened traditional moral norms and family relations.

In Helen Fleetwood Tonna provides a semi-fictional account of the deplorable conditions created by the factory system. The novel concerns the fate of a village orphan, Helen Fleetwood, who has been adopted by the poor widow Green and raised together with her grandchildren in a rented cottage in the agricultural South. Unable to pay the rent, the widow is persuaded by a poor-law commissioner and an agent hired by a Lancashire manufacturer to move away with the children to an industrial city in the North called &ldquoM” (Manchester), where Helen with other children will be employed in a factory. The agent assures her that factories offer plenty of employment opportunities.

You must know, the town where I live is one of the first places in England for furnishing good, healthful, profitable employment for industrious people, from those of your own age down to the small children, whose little nimble fingers get so expert at the easy tasks given to them, that if you happened to have a little boy even of seven years old, he would make a good round sum at the week’s end by his own work — or play, you may almost call it. [26]

However, the widow Green soon discovers that she was grossly deceived about the factory conditions, which corrupt the employers and employees alike, particularly children. The latter are overworked, undernourished, and lack parental and religious guidance. Tonna provided shocking evidence of the exploitation of children in factories, pointing out that labouring children were the most vulnerable victims in an industrial society because not only their bodies but also their minds were adversely affected by factory work.

Excluded from the free air, and almost from the pure light of day; shut up in an atmosphere polluted by clouds of fetid breath, and all the sickening exhalations of a crowded human mass, whose unwashed, overworked bodies were also in many cases diseased, and by the suffocating dust that rose on every side; relaxed by an intensity of artificial heat which their constitutions were never framed to encounter in the temperate clime where God had placed them; doubly fevered, doubly debilitated, by excessive toil, not measured by human capacity to sustain it, but by the power of machinery obeying am inexhaustible impetus; badly clothed, wretchedly fed, and exposed moreover to fasts of unnatural length even from that miserable fare; who can marvel if, under such a system, the robust adult speedily acquires a sickly habit of body, and a morbid state of feeling, leading at once to most awful perversion of mind and corruption of morals? But it is not of adults we are called to speak, it is of children, young, tender, growing children, who require a double portion of rest, refreshment, liberty for the body, and of watchful diligence to direct and guide the mind. [126]

The novel’s narrative center, the widow Green, gradually perceives the depravity of the factory system. She tries in vain to struggle against the evil she witnesses, but she fails to help her children. By the conclusion of the novel Helen’s health declines and she dies of illnesses contracted in the mill, one of the grandchildren, Phoebe, has become a prostitute, and the other, Charles an alcoholic. Poor widow Green ends up in that worst of Victorian working-class nightmares, the workhouse.

Following Thomas Carlyle, Charlotte Elizabeth provided a scathing critique of an industrial society overcome by technology and mechanisation. Tonna’s representation of agrarian patriarchalism is contrasted with industrial oligarchy, which had no regard for suffering nor human life. Joseph A. Kestner has demonstrated that in Helen Fleetwood Tonna anticipated the debate about the two nation-divide, which Benjamin Disraeli later continued in Sybil. (65) Tonna found herself dismayed by the destruction of English peasantry who she saw becoming pitiful urban labourers.

An unnatural state of things, wholly foreign to the old English character, is transforming ’a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,’ into a degraded, discontented, restless, reckless, turbulent mob. Two classes, hitherto bound together by mutual interests and mutual respect, are daily becoming more opposed the one to the other. [291]

Inspired by her staunch Evangelical faith and Tory benevolence, Tonna regretted that the old paternalistic social system was being replaced by the laissez-faire economics, which paradoxically did not bring happiness for the greatest numbers but urban and rural squalor instead.

The Wrongs of Woman

Tonna’s next social reform novel, The Wrongs of Woman, published in four parts between 1843 and 1844, deals with female employment in the non-textile industries. Charlotte Elizabeth provides an eye -witness report of the working women who emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Although the title of Tonna’s novel alludes to Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished Maria: or Wrongs of Woman (1798), the contents and messages of the two novels differ considerably.

The Wrongs of Woman includes both fact and fiction: documentary evidence, such as fragments of government reports and inquiries, e.g. The Second Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children (1843), and fictional accounts of young women who had been in the labour force. The four Chapters of the book (“Milliners and Dressmakers,” “The Forsaken Home,” “The Little Pin-headers,” and “The Lacerunners”) describe subhuman living and working conditions of poor women in London. The publication of the book had impact on public opinion and contributed to the passage of the Factory Acts of 1844, 1847 and 1848.

Tonna strongly objected to female employment at wages below those of men, because, she argued, it increased male unemployment while hindering women’s domestic mission: housekeeping and child care. It also led to the collapse of the traditional patriarchal family. As Joseph A. Kestner notes: “In probing this situation in The Wrongs of Woman Tonna anticipated Engels, who observed that “the wife is the bread-winner while her husband stays at home . . . Family relations are reversed.” [99]

The Wrongs of Woman provides factual descriptions of several examples of women's factory work that introduce her middle-class readers to the unfamiliar world of industrial production of luxury goods and cases of economic oppression of women and children. Simultaneously, she reminds her readers of some eschatological concerns, especially the divine retribution. Charlotte Elizabeth calls on her Christian readers to take responsibility for the inhumane treatment of female and child labourers and contribute, as much as they can, to the implementation of more humane changes in factory legislation. According to Tonna, the laissez-faire system was immoral, un-Christian — and could also provoke revolution.

The Wrongs of Woman consists of semi-fictional testimonies of young women who have been employed in various trades and are subjected to physical and psychological oppression in their workplaces, which results in their loss of health, or death, or prostitution. Their testimonies tell Tonna’s readers how the system works, revealing that young women often had to work at night and received no extra money for overtime hours.

“Do you receive no extra pay for your extra work?” “No work is considered extra, sir. I think myself that when we have to labour all, or greater part, of Sunday, we ought to be paid for that. However, money would not buy back the health and strength it consumes, to take from us the one day of jest that God has given to us.” “Does your employer never call in additional help when there is such a press of work?” “No, sir; and that is what we think hardest of all. There are a great many young women out of employ, who would be very glad to do occasional work: and though we in the millinery line have less plain work than the dress-makers to do, there is much in our business that might be trusted to other hands, especially if they came to work in the house. Our principal would lose the money paid to them, and gain nothing, so long as, by making us work twenty hours out of the twenty-four for weeks together, and not seldom the Sunday included, she can get the same done without any extra cost. It is we who should gain, nobody else; and we are poor, humble girls, that nobody cares for, except in our own homes. There, too, there is often poverty so great with the large families our parents have to maintain, that we have not the heart to throw ourselves on them while we can keep up, besides forfeiting the value of what they scraped together to pay a premium for us.” [54-55]

Although very critical about the industrial relations, Tonna mitigates her indictment by showing that some employers are aware that the production system is cruel, immoral, and wrong, but they need more support from the general public, especially “the ladies of England,” who can better emphathise with with their working-class sisters.

There are, at this moment, in London alone, not less than Fifteen Thousand young women, from the age of fourteen upwards, employed in, not merely working for, the millinery and dressmaking establishments of fifteen hundred employers. Among the latter, there are not a few who deeply deplore the cruel system of wrong and oppression briefly and faintly sketched in the foregoing pages: and who, if encouraged and upheld by the ladies of England, would pledge themselves to a line of conduct which at present they can only pursue under heavy disadvantages. These individuals, who feel as women ought to do, the wrongs that woman suffer, adopt excellent rules, and take exceeding pains to render the situation of their subordinates as comfortable, and as little injurious as possible. But much discomfort must attach to such a calling — much injury must ensue; and the utmost we can all do, in influencing the ladies who employ and the principal who engages and directs these young people in the task of preparing the articles that adorn their persons, can only mitigate the evil in some degree. [94-95]

In the finale of The Wrongs of Woman, Charlotte Elizabeth, like Carlyle in Chartism, warns her readers about the danger of a widespread revolution if proper measures are not taken in due time.

It has been asked, Why is this little book called “The Wrongs of Woman,” seeing it is only to one class of female sufferers that its sad details apply? We answer, that the wrong against woman, against woman in every rank and every class, perpetrated by the means which have been very briefly sketched in these pages, is alike fearful and universal. Have we not a woman on the throne? and is she not wronged, the Queen of England, while rebellion is cradled, fostered, matured in the ancient nurseries of pure old English loyalty throughout the land? There ever has been, and ever will be, a spirit of restless discontent seeking to unsettle the minds of the lower orders; but so long as the humblest of England’s wives and mothers had homes where the frugal meal that fair industry could secure to them might be eaten in peace — so long as those women were left to make such lowly homes pleasant to the labouring men, who, with “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work” filled their proper station in the scale of society, and claimed the poor Englishman’s share of that domestic comfort which is, or was, their country’s dearest boast — so long a great but most effective opposing force was found in continual operation against the pernicious effects of political incendiarism; and however the man might bluster over imaginary wrongs in a crowd of noisy spouters, the quiet home, the clean-swept hearth, the industrious wife, and rosy prattling children that hailed his return, were better than fifty treatises on loyalty and contentment to reconcile him to his lot. Besides, while God’s laws were not outraged, nor His Poor ground down by oppression that actually forbids the woman of a Christian land to be “a keeper at home,” to “rule the house,” to adorn herself with “shamefacedness and sobriety,” or to fulfil even the most sacred duties of a mother to her own baby offspring, yea, compels her to become an infanticide, — so long the blessing was not withdrawn — the curse was not poured out upon the land. But now, through the atrocious system of which a very small, and that too the least revolting part, has been set forth, our women are changed into men, and our men into devils; and the fair inheritance of England’s Queen is becoming but as a throne whose pillars rest on an awakening volcano. [139-140]

As can be seen, Charlotte Elizabeth dramatized for her readers an acute social problem that had already been dealt with in Parliamentary reports, which were restricted to a limited audience. Tonna’s novels, which had a wide readership, provoked a nationwide debate about factory work and female and child employment. Although Charlotte Elizabeth very effectively exposed the ills of the Industrial Revolution, her solutions for working-class women were not always feasible, since returning to purely domestic roles proved difficult, if not impossible, for many. However, in decades following the Hungry Forties Parliamentary Acts considerably limited female and child employment.


Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna stood in a long line of committed and educated women who contributed significantly to both the Condition-of-England Question and the Woman Question in the early Victorian period. Tonna, like Hannah More and other Victorian women polemicists (such as Harriet Martineau, Frances Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell), advocated greater influence of women in society. She believed that Christian women, although confined to the domestic sphere, had the right to be informed about social issues, and if necessary, they should exert moral pressure against public evils and thereby promote or induce amelioration in social conditions.

Tonna’s industrial novels anticipated in important ways the Condition-of-England novels, such as Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical. Charlotte Elizabeth treated narrative fiction as an effective medium for the Christian reform of industrial conditions whose aim was to alleviate working-class suffering. In fact, in her time Charlotte Elizabeth was ranked higher as a social reformer than Charles Dickens. (Neff, 16)

Related Material

  • Introduction: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna: “A Life by no means deficient in remarkable incidents”
  • Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections
  • Lewis Tonna’s Memoir of Charlotte Elizabeth
  • References

    Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own?: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914. London: Routledge, 1996.

    Kestner, Joseph A. Protest and Reform: The British Social Narrative by Women, 1827-1867. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

    Krueger, Christine L. The Reader’s Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    Lenard, Mary. “Deathbeds and Didacticism. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Victorian Social Reform Literature,” in Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers edited by Brenda Ayres. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

    Neff, Wanda Fraiken. Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-1850. New York City, 1929.

    [Tonna], Charlotte, Elizabeth. Helen Fleetwood. New York: Charles Scribner, 1852.

    [Tonna], Charlotte Elizabeth. The Wrongs of Woman. Part I. Milliners and Dressmakers. New York: M.W. Dodd, 1845.

    Last modified 26 August 2010