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  • "The Level of the Beasts that Perish":Animalized Text in Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood
  • Christie Peterson (bio)

In May 1833, the London Times reported that "an animal of a strange and unnatural appearance" had "taken up its abode in the neighbouring woods" of the village of Coulsden, Surrey:

It has been seen by a great many persons, but the several descriptions are much at variance with each other. All declare that it is something of the dog or wolf species, but all agree that they never saw the like before. It is thought by the more rational part, who are willing to assign a natural cause for the visit of this animal, that it has escaped from some menagery; but the superstitious are inclined to the belief that it is a supernatural being, come to terrify the wicked for their sins.


The article highlights the bafflement of the villagers, who turn inwards to the only logical explanation for such a "strange and unnatural" creature: themselves. Whether the animal originated in a menagerie (a configuration of animals displaced from their natural environment) or the animal is a supernatural being that represents the people's guilt, the creature is a human projection. Mute, separated from the human population, and out of its own context, the animal is an outward copy of some inner portion of the observing humans.

Defining "the animal" and its human relationships preoccupied many writers who mobilized awareness of animal treatment during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an era that witnessed a new awareness of animals' physiological and emotional similarity to humans (Perkins 22-24).1 Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay note that animals—especially those seen as "'out of place' and thus to have escaped conventional categories," like the Coulsden animal—became "the canvas on which a culture [could] sketch the range of its many, and often contradictory, attitudes toward both the 'animal' and the concept of 'nature' as a zone purportedly separate from the human that needs either to be exploited or protected" (4-5). Purportedly is a significant term, for, as Morse and Danahay clarify, "the status of the 'animal' also brings into question the status of the 'human' as the two cannot be seen [End Page 108] in isolation" (5). As the animal rights movement progressed into the 1830s and 1840s, the connections between animal and human were underscored by the Industrial Revolution; social-reform writers used animals to explore technology's effect on humanity and its relationship with nature, projecting their fears about technology's dehumanizing influence onto animals, much as the people of Coulsden projected their sins onto the "strange and unnatural" creature in their neighbourhood.2

Fears about technology's dehumanizing effects surface in the didactic reform novel Helen Fleetwood (1841), in which Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna laments the failure of factory owners "to raise [workers] somewhat above the level of the beasts that perish—somewhat above the insensible machinery against which their feeble limbs must toil in an agonizing race" (176). Born in England in 1790, Tonna was a staunch Evangelical who espoused a number of social causes. She was also a prolific writer, publishing novels, poetry, short stories, religious tracts, political pamphlets, and an autobiography, as well as editing the Christian Lady's Magazine during the 1830s and 1840s. Her fiction and non-fiction about factory reform were influential during the industrial reform movement's early years.3 Basing Helen Fleetwood on her research on parliamentary blue books, Tonna portrayed the atrocities of factory work in order to gain sympathy for two major causes (the repeal of the New Poor Law of 1834 and the passing of the Ten Hours Bill) and to teach responses to the breakup of the national family and the now jeopardized nuclear family (Lenard 68-70; Gallagher 127).4 Her overall objective was to highlight the injustice of a system that suppressed the humanity of the working poor.

Scholars studying didactic social-reform fiction like Tonna's have shown how the genre used nature to counter both the mechanization of factory workers and the metaphorical mechanization of society. Yet this scholarship has overlooked animals' complex role in negotiating the...


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pp. 108-126
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