Aspects of Child Labor in Tonna's Helen Fleetwood
Benziman, Galia, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Galia Benziman, Aspects of Child Labor in Tonna's Helen Fleetwood
This article explores the unique role of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood (1841), one of the first social-problem novels, in shaping the concerns and strategies of the genre. Writing at a moment of cultural change in the attitude toward children, Tonna's Blakean vision of child labor as diabolical allows her to offer a daring critique of social institutions. Yet her political vision is inconsistent: although she redeems the working-class child's point of view and rehumanizes this figure, Tonna's staging of child labor as originating in a metaphysical, divine plan leads her to construct children's suffering as a justifiable and even desirable ethos.
Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood (1841) was one of the first social-problem novels published in Britain. Together with Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), whose first installment was published seven months earlier, Helen Fleetwood was pioneering in its marked interest in the material and mental effects of industrialism and in its realistic and detailed depiction of the lives and labor of the poor. (1) Serialized in The Christian Lady's Magazine between September 1839 and March 1841 under the pen name "Charlotte Elizabeth," Tonna's novel was inspired by the publication of the parliamentary commissions' reports in the early 1830s that aroused public opinion to the dismal working and living conditions of the nation's poor. (2) Helen Fleetwood's professed purpose is to expose the unjust and irreligious aspect of the socioeconomic system under industrialism in order to arouse the moral indignation and social awareness of its readers. In this respect, Tonna deserves serious attention from scholars of nineteenth-century British social and cultural history because of her unique role in shaping the concerns and strategies of the social-problem novel. (3)
Tonna's importance, seen especially in Helen Fleetwood, lies in her intriguing use of the child laborer as a central image. This image enhances the novel's overall religious and political critique of industrial Britain. Writing at a moment of cultural and social change both in the attitude toward children and in the perception of class relations, Tonna's representation of working-class children reveals a complex mixture of conformist and reformist ideas regarding class conflict, as well as a merger of traditional and progressive conceptions of childhood. Helen Fleetwood illustrates the gradual evangelical fusion between puritan ideas of the child as an embodiment of original sin and the more recent Romantic and humanistic ideology of childhood as an ideal state of moral innocence. In a devoutly Christian work such as Helen Fleetwood, the child is a figure endowed with spiritual purity. This purity is constantly threatened, however, by its coerced contact with a corrupt environment. Tonna articulates the material and spiritual needs of her child characters in a way that associates them with the figure of the biblical orphan--an emblem of vulnerable innocence and an indication of the extent to which a given society is capable of administering justice or injustice. Helen Fleetwoods subversion is therefore located in the very religious substance of its depiction of society, which might be taken as a sign of the work's conservatism.
What also enhances the novel's political critique is the fact that Tonna's child laborers are central to the plot, whereas adult laborers are conspicuously marginal. These child figures acquire a synecdochic function and come to represent England's neglected, ill-treated sector of industrial laborers in general. The vulnerability and initial moral innocence of these figures acquire a political dimension; by granting the child laborer a literary point of view and a voice of her own, Tonna de-objectifies an entire sector of society. Religious, moral, and reformist visions thus become one. …