Tone, Matilda (Martha) (1769–1849), wife of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), is notable for her preservation and publication of his literary remains. She was born 17 June 1769 and called Martha, the eldest daughter in the family of four daughters and two sons of William Witherington , listed in Wilson's Dublin Directory as a woollen draper in Grafton Street, Dublin (1768–84), as a wine merchant (1784–8), and then simply as a ‘merchant’ (1788–93). Witherington, said by Thomas Reynolds jnr once to have been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, represented the merchants’ guild on Dublin's common council (1777–83). Witherington's wife, Catherine (d. 1797), was housekeeper to her widowed father, Edward Fanning (1709?–1791), a wealthy clergyman who for forty years had the living of Dungiven, Co. Londonderry, his wife Joanna (née French) having died in 1776. According to Reynolds, the house, 69 Grafton Street, at which the Witheringtons lived in the 1780s was Fanning's. Martha Witherington received a good education, to judge from the several surviving letters written by her, the keen interest in literature and drama she shared with her husband, and the presence of ‘various Italian, French and English authors of the best selection’ noticed by Katherine Wilmot (qv) when visiting her home in Paris (1802). At the age of fifteen she became acquainted, through her elder brother, Edward (1765–1832), later a dragoon officer, with Tone, who was still a student at TCD; it was he who renamed her Matilda. The couple were married at St Ann's church, Dublin, on 21 July 1785, and, after a brief honeymoon at Maynooth, lived for a short time with her parents (with whom they were never on good terms) and then with Tone's parents at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare.
The couple's first child was a daughter, Maria, born before October 1786; another, Richard (named after their neighbour Richard Griffith (qv)), followed but died while still a baby. Matilda Tone stayed on with her parents-in-law while her husband was away in London studying for the bar (1787–8). After his return two more sons were born, William Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) on 29 April 1791, and Francis Rawdon Tone, known as Frank (named after Francis Rawdon (qv), the future earl of Moira), on 23 June 1793. William was born in Dublin, Frank probably at Bodenstown, at a cottage jocularly called Château Boue, which Tone held and then inherited from his uncle Jonathan Tone (d. September 1792). The family lived in the cottage until May 1795, when, for political reasons, they left for America, where they lived at Princeton, New Jersey.
Eighteen months later Matilda Tone and her children recrossed the Atlantic to join Tone in France. They settled in Paris, staying at first near the family of Tone's friend Colonel Henry Shee at Nanterre, then still a village, and moving later to Chaillot, a suburb. Matilda educated her children at home. Though her own letters that survive are few, it is clear from her husband's fifty-three surviving letters to her and the diaries he wrote intended only for her and his friend Thomas Russell (qv), as well as from the thirty-two surviving letters addressed to her (1820–48) by her friend Eliza Fletcher, that politics interested her deeply. Some time after Tone's death in November 1798 she moved to the Latin quarter of Paris, to a small apartment at 51 rue St Jacques, to be near her son William, who was enrolled at the Prytanée (renamed the Lycée Impérial, later reverting to its old name, Collège Louis-le-Grand). After the rupture of the peace of Amiens (18 May 1803) she was awarded a pension of 1,200 francs for herself and 400 for each of her children.
In succession she lost to tuberculosis her daughter Maria (in April 1803) and her son Frank (in 1806), who was also a pupil at the Prytanée. In 1807, her surviving son, William, showing signs of the same disease and a sea voyage being considered a remedy, she took him to America, where the pair attempted to sort out Tone's affairs, which had been entrusted to James Reynolds (qv); they succeeded in retrieving only a few of Tone's pre-1795 diaries, but the post-1795 diaries and letters, as well as his autobiography, Matilda herself had kept safe. When William Tone entered the École de Cavalerie at Saint-Germain-en-Laye as a cadet in November 1810, Matilda moved again to be near him, lodging at the Hôtel de la Surintendance. By accosting Napoleon – who remembered her husband – when the emperor was hunting in the forest (12 April 1811), she secured for her son the privileged status of ‘élève du gouvernement’ and French citizenship. On his leaving the cavalry school to begin service (January 1813) she returned to Paris and rented an apartment in the rue de Lille (afterwards renamed rue de Bourbon), later returning to the Latin quarter.
The difficulties experienced by William Tone after Napoleon's final defeat (June 1815) and the refusal of the British government in November of that year to allow him to return to Ireland or even to visit Britain made a return to America inevitable for Matilda Tone as well as for himself. Before leaving Paris she married, on 19 August 1816, an old friend, Thomas Wilson (d. 27 June 1824), an advocate and businessman of Dullatur, Lanarkshire, Scotland, who after Tone's death had looked after her financial affairs. After a visit to Scotland the couple settled in New York (1817) but moved (c.1820) to Georgetown, District of Columbia, where Matilda Tone-Wilson (as she called herself) lived until her death.
In 1824, offended by the unauthorised publication in a London journal, the New Monthly Magazine, of extracts from her first husband's autobiography (starting July 1824), she decided to publish in full Tone's literary remains – his autobiography, diaries, memoranda, letters, pamphlets, and other documents. Ten years previously she had told her sister Catherine that she was contemplating this possibility: ‘They will certainly appear,’ she wrote, ‘but not yet, not till they become purely historical, till the world is calm and people have had time to feel, and it shall never be done for profit, nor from any hostile feeling to any living creature’ (Matilda Tone to Catherine Heaviside, 10 Dec. 1814 (RIA, MS 23/K/53)). She entrusted the task of editing them to her son William. The result of what must, on internal evidence, have been their joint effort appeared in two large volumes as Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone . . . written by himself and continued by his son from the press of Gales and Seaton of Washington (May 1826). She contributed to the publication a memoir of her life in Paris after 1798. The book, which became a best-seller, immortalised her husband. It is the most important collection of contemporary writing on Irish politics in the period of the French revolution, and includes what is one of the earliest and perhaps the finest autobiography by an Irishman.
After William Tone's death in 1828 Matilda lived privately, but she occasionally wrote letters, including one to John Gray (d. 1856) encouraging him in a plan to erect a stone on Tone's grave at Bodenstown (1843). Her devotion to her husband during his lifetime despite his long absences, her devotion after his early death to their children, and her dedication to the preservation and publication of his literary remains have been portrayed as ‘virtuous republican femininity’ (Curtin). She died 18 March 1849 at Georgetown, probably at her home in First Street, only two weeks after being interviewed by Charles Hart (1824–98), a Young Irelander, to whom she ‘chatted very gaily’ about her life in Ireland and France. She was buried near her son William at Marbury burying-ground, Georgetown, but on 31 October 1891 their remains were reinterred in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
Matilda Tone was related by marriage to John Fitzgibbon (qv), later earl of Clare, lord chancellor throughout the 1790s, and her husband's nemesis. Her aunt Martha or Matilda Fanning married (1762) Blennerhasset Grove, a Dublin linen-draper, whose sister Elinor married (1743) John Fitzgibbon (qv) the elder; the future chancellor was their child. From Grove's death (1773) until her own death (1786?) Martha Grove was a member of Edward Fanning's household.