Personal Recollections ends decisively: "Of myself, I have no more to say than that 'by the help of my God I continue to this day' anxiously desirous to devote my little talent to His service, as He may graciously permit" (PR 366). But as her second husband, Lewis Tonna, notes in his memoir, it had been Tonna's intention to say more, to continue the narrative at a later date. She probably believed that she had ample time to write a full and comprehensive autobiography; in fact she lived for only another five years. It therefore fell to her much younger husband to pick up where she left off and to write a supplement to Personal Recollections. Lewis Tonna's memoir is, by his own admission, only a "brief and imperfect outline" (Memoir 331). Nonetheless, it is extremely illuminating: he sheds light on a number of key issues, such as his wife's growing belief in pre-Millenarianism and her intense interest in Judaism. Most importantly, he informs us of the chief occurrences in Tonna's life in the years leading to her death in 1846.
Engraving by T. Bonar.
Frontispiece from the two-volume edition of her
Works published by M W Dodd, NY, 1849. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
It is from Lewis Tonna's memoir that we learn how, in 1836, Tonna moved from Edmonton, north London (the last residence referred to in Personal Recollections) to Blackheath, southeast London. She stayed there until 1845 when failing health forced her to move permanently to her husband's official residence in Westminster, central London. Lewis Tonna devotes only a few sentences to their marriage, but they are enough to reveal the great depth and complexity of feeling that existed between the couple. He recalls how they married in February 1841, much to the surprise of her friends, who were not expecting such an event. This is not surprising given their disparate ages: Tonna was fifty-one, Lewis only twenty-nine at the time of their marriage. Lewis Tonna stresses the domestic happiness and peace that resulted from their marriage and how, for both of them, it opened "new and extended spheres of usefulness" (Memoir 332). This is borne out by Tonna's own words when she writes of her newfound "happy home" towards the end of Personal Recollections. All available evidence suggests that theirs was an energetic, companionate and balanced partnership.
Lewis Tonna recalls that Judah's Lion (1843) was Tonna's last work of fiction. The writing of fiction, even for purpose of religious teaching, had always been a subject of anguished debate amongst evangelical fundamentalists. Eventually, the conviction that such writing was not consistent with Christian truth became, for Tonna, impossible to ignore. Following her decision to write no more novels or short stories, Tonna turned her attention towards non-fiction, chiefly social reform literature, and religious writing. More and more of her own work starting to appear in The Christian Lady's Magazine, the journal that she edited from 1834 until her death in July 1846. Lewis Tonna is at pains to point out that his wife's known work "did not comprise the whole of the labours of her pen" (Memoir 344), presumably a reference to her polemical appeal to the legislature, The Perils of the Nation (1843), which Tonna wrote at the behest of Lord Ashley and which was published anonymously.
Tonna's last public act took place in 1844 during a visit to England by the Emperor Nicholas of Russia (1796-1855). By this time she was deeply involved with Judaism and her chief concerns revolved around the widespread oppression and persecution of the Jewish people. She drew up a memorial pleading on behalf of the Emperor's Jewish subjects in the hope of relieving, "even by a feather's weight, the load that pressed upon these poor sufferers" (Memoir 344). At her own expense she employed a competent artist to copy it out on the finest vellum. Even though the Emperor's visit was a strictly private one to Queen Victoria (1819-1901), after much personal effort, Tonna succeeded in having it presented. This was quite an achievement especially as, after years of perfect physical fitness, her health was starting to fail. A few months before the Emperor's visit, "a slight nodosity [sic] made its appearance in one of the left axillary [sic] glands" (Memoir 345) and on the 24th December of the same year, Tonna was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She spurned the use of opiates to ease her pain, instead turning to homoeopathic remedies, which she fully endorsed to readers of The Christian Lady's Magazine.
In the summer of 1845, doctors recommended that her health would benefit from the effects of sea air. Tonna decided to go to the seaside resort of Sandgate, near Folkestone, Kent, which was famed at this time for its pleasant air and aspect. Travelling by steam vessel from London, the engine broke down in the Thames estuary and the passengers ended up being taken to Ramsgate, Kent, where Tonna stayed at a hotel for a few days to recuperate from the traumatic journey. Here she encountered one of the town's most celebrated residents, the Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885). The acquaintance rapidly deepened into friendship — they shared the same vision of a permanent homeland for the Jewish people — and it was not long before she was visiting Sir Moses and his wife at their residence on the East Cliff.
As the disease continued its inexorable advance Tonna started to have frequent and alarming haemorrhages. These weakened her, and it was not long before her "left arm became fearfully swollen and wholly useless" (Memoir 349). This made writing difficult, but Tonna was determined to carry on with her work as long as possible. Indefatigable even at this stage of her illness, Tonna invented an apparatus and had it made up for her by a carpenter:
It consisted of two rollers on a frame; on the lower one many yards of paper were rolled, and as fast as she filled a page, writing with her frame upon one knee, a turn of a small winch wound off the MS. to the upper roller, and brought up a clean surface of paper. In this manner she would write papers for the press, and letters to friends, measuring three or four or six yards in length (Memoir 349).
Using this contraption Tonna was able to continue with her job as editor of The Christian Lady's Magazine right up until the month before her death.
Lewis Tonna recalls that by June 1846 "it was evident to all who saw [Tonna], that her time was now short, though few anticipated how near at hand was the day of her departure" (Memoir 353). She expressed a wish to visit the seaside again, and on the 10th July she set off to travel by train to Ramsgate. Her friends, including the Montefiores (bearing grapes), saw her off at the station, on what they guessed would be her last journey. Tonna retained her great passions and hatreds right to the end. On the way to the railway station, as she passed "the great Mass house now rearing itself in St George's fields" Tonna lifted her hand in denunciation against it and said in Hebrew, "O, daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed!" (Memoir 356). When passing through Canterbury, her attention was directed to the Cathedral. "Yes, it is very grand; but there is where the martyrs were starved to death!" she said, "pointing to the towers of an ancient gateway, which spans one of the main streets of the city" (Memoir 357).
Tonna arrived in Ramsgate at half-past six in the evening and went to the Castle Inn, as the apartments that she was due to occupy on the West Cliff were not ready for her. The following morning she started haemorrhaging and a doctor was called. After he had succeeded in stopping the flow, he made an aside to Tonna's husband expressing his amazement at her tranquillity and resignation. She overheard the remark and replied: "It is the love of Jesus that sustains me!" (Memoir 357). Early in the morning on the 12th July she experienced difficulty in breathing and suddenly exclaimed: "It is death!" (Memoir 358), but in fact she went on to rally slightly. Suddenly, in the late afternoon she threw her arms around her husband's neck, and pressing her lips to his, she exclaimed with great passion, "I love you!" (Memoir 359). Twenty minutes later, Lewis Tonna recalls that his wife "fell asleep in Jesus" (Memoir 359).
Two months before her death, Tonna had asked her husband not to lay her body in a vault, but instead for it to be buried in a simple grave in a perishable coffin. Apparently she was anxious not to impede in any way the Scriptural decree "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" (Memoir 359). During her tour of Ireland in 1837, Tonna had visited Lough Owel where her brother had drowned, and she had taken from its bank a small plant (possibly a shamrock) which she had grown-on in gardens and flower pots ever since. She charged her husband to plant this on her grave with just a plain headstone marking the plot. She conceded that he could also plant on her grave some of her favourite flowers, the Heartsease, if he so wished. The headstone was inscribed thus:
LIE THE MORTAL REMAINS
LEWIS HYPPOLYTUS JOSEPH TONNA,
WHO DIED ON THE 12th OF JULY,
LOOKING UNTO JESUS.
According to burial records held in Canterbury Cathedral, Tonna was interred in the churchyard of St George's church, Ramsgate on 15th July 1846. Although an exhaustive search has been carried out of the churchyard, no trace could be found of Tonna's grave.
__________. Personal Recollections. 1841. London: R. B. Seeley & W. Burnside, 1841.
__________. The Perils of the Nation: An Appeal to the Legislature, The Clergy, and the Higher and Middle Classes. 1843. London: Seeley, Burnside and Seeley, 1843.
__________. Judah's Lion. 1843. London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1847.
Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. "Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna: A Forgotten Evangelical Writer." Studia Neophilologica 53 (1980): 79-102.
Loomer, L.S. "Charlotte Elizabeth (Browne) Phelan (1790-1846)." Canadian Notes and Queries (Nov. 1974): 9-11.
Tonna, L. H. J. Life of Charlotte Elizabeth and A Memoir. 1847. New York, NY: M. W. Dodd, 1852.
Last modified 7 June 2004