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  • "Embodying Facts":Anxiety about Fiction in The Christian Lady's Magazine and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Social-Problem Novels
  • Joanne Nystrom Janssen (bio)

As a seven-year-old child, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) first encountered Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Because she was sick and could not attend the play with her brother, she instead read it at home in a quiet corner, savoring the experience. Fascinated with the character of Shylock and captivated by the story's excitement, Tonna read through the book's pages all night long. This incident, she explains later in her memoir Life of Charlotte Elizabeth, influenced her for many years afterwards. But unlike the positive stories many people tell about their first encounters with life-changing books, Tonna describes the experience as a dangerous moment of temptation, calling books "pernicious sweets" and "polluting idols."1 She also bewails the book's influence, saying, "Oh, how many wasted hours, how much of unprofitable labor, what wrong to my fellow-creatures, what robbery of God, must I refer to this ensnaring book!"2 Her negative response to The Merchant of Venice relates partly to what she sees as its disastrous effects: instead of wanting to read Bible stories, she began to yearn for Shakespeare, and rather than being satisfied with reality, she began to crave romance.

With such a view of literature's evils, it is surprising that Tonna not only went on to write pamphlets, treatises, and periodical articles, but also social-problem fiction. In fact, she became one of the first authors to fictionalize the plight of women and children in her industrial novels Helen Fleetwood and The Wrongs of Women. Ivanka Kovačević and S. Barbara Kanner argue that Tonna was a pioneer in social-problem fiction, breaking [End Page 327] ground for later authors such as Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Kingsley, and Elizabeth Gaskell. They explain: "She was the only author of her generation to write a novel wholly about the lives, at home and at work, of factory operatives and the first to introduce a working-class heroine into an English novel."3 In addition, Deborah Kaplan notes that Tonna was one of the first writers to apply to female factory workers a middle-class ideology of domesticity, which emphasized innate femininity and domestic roles, and to "attempt to inform upper- and middle-class women about the lives of working-class women."4 Not only was she inventive, she was successful: Kovačević and Kanner point out that her publishing history, which includes American editions of several of her works, suggests a transatlantic reputation.5 Her complete works were also published in several editions in the United States, including a three-volume set in 1844 with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In spite of her fictional innovation and achievement, Tonna consistently expressed discomfort with the use of fiction in her novels, displaying an unease reminiscent of her childhood response to The Merchant of Venice. In her fiction, she inserts factual claims and documentary evidence, such as data and testimony gathered from official reports, that suggest uncertainty about fiction's ability to capture truth, and her characters both value and fear the written word's power, signifying ambivalence about fiction's moral and spiritual influence. This unease is also evident in her avoidance of artistic devices; Kovačević and Kanner point out that her novels lack "metaphor, symbolism, or imaginative leaping and lingering," qualities often synonymous with fictional writing.6 Critics cite various reasons for Tonna's ambivalent relationship with fiction: Christine L. Krueger attributes her discomfort to her alignment with nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity, which was "deeply suspicious of fiction,"7 whereas Joseph Kestner argues that her inclusion of documentary evidence was a rhetorical strategy to "[lend] conviction to the tale."8

While both reasons hold merit, they do not address the complexity of Tonna's relationship with fiction, nor do they fully place her work within the context of The Christian Lady's Magazine, a monthly periodical aimed at middle-class British women that she edited from 1834 to her death in 1846. In this role, Tonna wrote and edited articles that explored what made writing, especially Christian...


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