1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 26 (October 1846) 433-34.



July 12. At Ramsgate, Charlotte Elizabeth, wife of Lewis H. J. Tonna, esq. better known under her literary designation of "Charlotte Elizabeth."

This very successful religious writer was born at Norwich about the year 1792, and was the only daughter of the Rev. Michael Browne, a Minor Canon of the cathedral, and Rector of St. Giles's in that city.

In her "Personal Recollections" she has left some interesting memorials of her career. This work was published six years ago, with the avowed purpose of preventing any extended posthumous biography, which might rake up doubtful and incorrect facts and opinions, and be framed from materials which were never intended to see the light: for she disapproved of the publication of private letters, and thought that even a diary was scarcely a record from which general conclusions could be fairly deduced.

In early youth Charlotte Elizabeth displayed a very ardent temperament and lively imagination. Such was her eagerness for improvement, that when, before she was six years old, she had accepted the offer of an uncle to teach her the French language, she so, far strained her eyes in the study, that she was deprived of sight for some months. During this deprivation, she grew enthusiastically fond of music, a gratification which she was destined entirely soon to lose, by the permanent loss of her hearing.

At seven years of age, before it had been deemed safe to exercise her eyes with writing, she stealthily provided herself with a patent copy-book, by means of which, tracing the letters as they shone through the paper, she taught herself to write with tolerable freedom before any one knew that she could join two letters. "I well remember (she says) my father's surprise, not unmixed with annoyance, when he accidentally took up a letter which I had been writing to a distant relation, giving a circumstantial account of some domestic calamity which had no existence but in my brain; related with so much pathos too, that my tears had fallen over the slate whereon this my first literary attempt was very neatly traced."

There is much in the narrative of her early history which reminds us of Miss Burney, afterwards Madame. D'Arblay. "I know that among the diversity of gifts which God bestows on his creatures, he granted me a portion of mental energy, a quickness of perception, a liveliness of imagination, an aptitude for expressing the thoughts that were perpetually revolving in my mind, such as to fit me for literary occupation." Again, on the occasion of her father's death, she remarks, "A small annuity was all that my mother could depend on, and I resolved to become a novel-writer, for which I was just qualified, both by nature and habits of thinking, and in which I should probably have succeeded very well, but it pleased God to save me from this snare."

It was at this period, when on a visit to London, she met with Capt. George Phelan, of H.M. 60th regt. whose wife she became. She spent with him two years in Nova Scotia, where he was serving with his regiment, and afterwards followed him to his native country, where he had a small and very embarrassed estate near Kilkenny. In Ireland, "as far as this world was concerned, her lot had no happiness mingled in it;" at first she was left alone in the country whilst her husband was pursuing his legal business in Dublin; and subsequently she was placed under the necessity of ceasing to reside with him from his violence of conduct, which, indeed, was but the preliminary symptom of insanity.

During the law-suits in which her husband was involved, her time had been chiefly passed in writing out documents for the lawyers. She was already regarded as a literary recluse, when, from a casual communication with a lady who devoted her time to the distribution of tracts among the poor, she was induced to make her first essay in authorship in aid of the objects of the Dublin Tract Society. After removing to the town of Kilkenny, she finished "Osric, a missionary tale," which formed a good sized volume, and wrote several smaller tales for that society, which paid her liberally, and cheered her on her path with all the warmth of Christian affection. "My little books and tracts became popular because, after some struggle against a plan so humbling to literary pride, I was able to adopt the suggestion of a wise Christian brother, and to form a style of such homely simplicity, that if, on reading a manuscript to a child of five years old, I found there was a single sentence or word above his comprehension, it was instantly corrected to suit that lowly standard."

Whilst thus largely benefiting others, and supporting herself by her own exertions, Mrs. Phelan was not exempt from continued persecution. Claims which, however unjust, appear to have had some legal validity, were made upon her, and she was in consequence obliged to publish her works under her baptismal names of "Charlotte Elizabeth," not from any affectation of singularity, but simply to enable her to derive the benefit of her literary labours.

When she had spent more than five years in Ireland, on the return of her only brother, Capt. John Browne, from many years' service in Portugal, she took up her residence with him, first at Clifton, where she had some intercourse with Mrs. Hannah More, and afterwards at Bagshot Heath. During the two years and two months that she resided with her brother, she wrote The Rockite, The System, Izram, Consistency, Perseverance, Allan M'Leod, Zadoc, and upwards of thirty little books and tracts, besides contributions to periodicals. On the death of her brother in 18—, she undertook the sole charge of the education and maintenance of his two sons, for which object she did not cease to labour until within a few years of her death. "The Rockite," and "Derry, a Tale of the Revolution," were the two works that first attracted much attention from the public at large. They were followed by "Judah's Lion," "Helen Fleetwood, a tale of the Factories," and others, all of which have attained a wide circulation. Her "Personal Recollections," "Chapters on Flowers," and "Glimpses of the Past," which have gone through many editions, contain glimpses of her own life and of her immediate friends and associates, and are very delightful works. Her "Principalities and Powers in Heavenly Places," is a work on Angelic agency of high research, yet derived entirely from scripture, without note or commentary. In the year 1834 she commenced "The Christian Lady's Magazine," of which she continued the sole and unaided editor until the very number preceding her death, her writings being dictated when unable to hold the pen.

Her efforts were mainly directed to the support of the truths of the Gospel, and particularly in combating with the Church of Rome. She esteemed it a high honour and rich blessing that some of her works accidentally attained a place in the Papal Index Expurgatorius. They had been taken into Italy by a lady and her daughter, and translated by them into Italian. One of them, "The Simple Flower," a sixpenny book, thus translated, falling into the hands of an Italian physician, a man of highly cultivated mind, was the means of his conversion from nominal Romanism and actual infidelity, though it contained not a word on controversy, nor any allusion to Popery. This event led to the increased circulation of the series in the country, until it was denounced by the Archbishop of Siena, and all the writings of the author were prohibited.

In 1836 Charlotte Elizabeth abridged into two moderate sized volumes the "British Martyrology" of Foxe. In 1837 she revisited our "sister island," and published her reflections in a volume entitled "Letters from Ireland," More recently she exerted her powers of reasoning against Puseyism, in a "Peep into Number Ninety."

In the year 1841 she was married to her surviving widower Lewis Hyppolytus Joseph Tonna, esq. Assistant Director of the United Service Institution, an alliance of which it need only be said that it was as happy as her first was the reverse.

In the beginning of 1844 a schirrous induration appeared under the left axilla, which soon rapidly assumed a malignant form, and after being an open cancer for more than eighteen months, eventually caused her death by its attacking an artery, and causing exhaustion from loss of blood. An affecting narrative of her latter days, written by Mr. Tonna, has been published in the Christian Lady's Magazine for August.

On the general character of Mrs. Tonna's writings we may remark, that, while her views on doctrinal points were strictly in accordance with what is called the Evangelical party, over which numerous body, both of clergy and dissenters, the influence of her writings was greatly and widely felt, her mind was most wholly unfettered from human commentaries or systems. She had deduced her own views directly from Scripture, and she held them wholly unconcerned whether or not they agreed with others. A striking instance of this perfect independence of those with whom she generally agreed occurred in the year 1844, when, in direct opposition to all her friends, and unsupported by any other opinion, she addressed in print a letter to the late Bishop of Jerusalem, entitled "Israel's Ordinances," in which she advocates the opinion that, while it is imperatively necessary to salvation that the Jew should acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and only Saviour, yet that we had no right or warrant from Scripture precept or practice for requiring him to lay aside the observance of those peculiar rites and ceremonies which distinguish, even, in their dispersion, the Jewish people. This new view of the external aspect of Christianity was received by the Jews with much surprise, and the publication of this pamphlet led to a close and intimate acquaintance and friendship with Sir Moses Montefiore and other leading Jews.