Charlotte Elizabeth, 1790-1846

Titles by this author
Little oaths
The Bible, the best book
Richard and Rover
Patty, or, Beware of meddling

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna published prolifically under her baptismal name, Charlotte Elizabeth. She was born in rural Norwich England, the daughter of Reverend Michael Browne, an Anglican priest and a minor canon at Norwich Cathedrale (310). Her mother was the daughter of Dr. Murray, an eminent physician. Tonna was brought up in a Tory, royalist, Church-of-England family (310). She was an ill child, and at the age of six she was completely blind for several months. During her tenth year, she permanently lost her hearing due to medication she was taking for other ailments. Her deafness led to her interest in educating deaf children. Throughout her life, Charlotte Elizabeth was concerned with the plight of English factory workers and evangelical religion, and she was passionate about gardening as The Simple Flower and Philip and His Garden (1841) indicate (310). Her father died in 1812, and she subsequently moved to London with her mother. There she met Cpt. George Phelan whom she married six months later. They moved to Nova Scotia, Canada where he was stationed in the British army for two years. Then they lived in Ireland from 1819 - 1824. During this time, she converted to Evangelical Protestantism, became enthusiastically anti-catholic, developed a love for the Irish people, and began her writing career (310). She began writing for the Dublin Tract Society in the early 1820's. She separated from her husband formally when he was sent abroad with the army and she refused to cross the Atlantic a second time. She assumed the pen name, Charlotte Elizabeth, to prevent Captain Phelan from taking a share of the money she earned from her writing. Charlotte Elizabeth returned to England where she took residence in Clifton near Bristol. There, she met Hannah More who also wrote religious tracts and moral tales (311). She moved to a cottage at Bagshot Heath to be near her brother, and this was the most prolific time for her (1827). This period of her life came to an end when her brother was called for army service in Ireland where he drowned. As her memoirs, Personal Recollections (1841) describe, she had an unusually strong attachment to her brother (313).

Charlotte Elizabeth's stories for children fit into one of several categories: Bible stories such as The Star, The Golden Image, and The Faithful Steward, moral tales such as Backbiting, Kindness to Animals, and The Simple Flower, cautionary tales such as The Boat and The Red Berries, and sermon-like lectures such as "Where are You Going?" and "The Bird's Nest." Her characters are described as generic types, and she is said to focus more on message than plot (312). Charlotte Elizabeth uses nature in religious analogies in both her prose and poems to instruct children. Her work was translated into such diverse languages as French, Italian, Marathi, and the Mpongwe language of Gabon in West Africa (310). In the 1840's, Charlotte Elizabeth's writing began to be published in the United States, and the American Tract Society published several collections of her children's stories (313).

The Wrongs of Woman describes the abominable living and working conditions of female laborers in London. The four parts of the book (Milliners and Dressmakers, The Forsaken Home, The Little Pin-headers, and the Lacerunners) reveal the working conditions outside of factories and helped gather support for passage of the Factory Acts of 1844, 1847, and 1848 (314). Charlotte Elizabeth also became the editor of the Protestant Magazine in 1841 and that same year, she married Lewis Hippolytus Joseph Tonna, a religious writer twenty-two years younger than her.

Charlotte Elizabeth also began a Sunday school in her cottage, did charity work in the Irish ghetto in London, and established a Protestant Church in St. Giles in the early 1830's (313). She brought much needed attention to the plight of English factory workers in the 1840's through her editorship of The Christian Lady's Magazine from 1834 until her death (310).

She displayed a sympathy for Jews and expressed the belief that Jews might retain their traditional rituals and still reach salvation by accepting Jesus Christ as the Messiah. She published Judah's Lion (1843) which was her last book length work of fiction. She was diagnosed with cancer and in June 1846, wrote a farewell letter to her readers which expressed joy towards her impending death.

Gibson, Lois Rauch and Madelyn Holmes. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 163. "British Children's Writers, 1800 - 1880." Ed. Meena Khorana. Gale: Detroit, 1996. 307 - 315.


The Wrongs of Woman (2 volumes; London: W.H. Dalton, 1843; New York: M.W. Dodd, 1843-1844) was republished as The Wrongs of Women. New York: M.W. Dodd, 1852.

Patty or Beware of Meddling was not included in one listing of her works.

Written by Stephen Rachman