Tonna, Charlotte Elizabeth (1790-1846), evangelical journalist and novelist, was born Charlotte Elizabeth Browne on 1 October 1790 in Norwich, England, daughter of Michael Browne, a minor canon of the cathedral, and his wife (probably a Murray). Her maternal grandmother, of Scots Covenanting descent, claimed Adam Murray (qv), hero of the siege of Derry, as an ancestor. Charlotte recalled her father citing Irish rebel atrocities in 1798 for his opposition to catholic emancipation; her anti-catholicism was confirmed by Fox's book of martyrs and local traditions of persecuted Lollards. She was temporarily blind in adolescence, and shortly afterwards became permanently deaf – she thought there might be some connection between the medical treatment for the blindness and her subsequent deafness, but never knew for sure; this and her precocious interest in reading made her parents indulgent.
In Charlotte's late teens her father died suddenly, leaving his family in a precarious financial situation. Her mother went to Portugal, where Charlotte's only sibling, Capt. John Browne, was on military service. Charlotte thought of becoming a professional writer. Instead, driven by adolescent fantasies of romantic love and military glamour, she married Capt. George Phelan in 1817 and went to Nova Scotia with his regiment for two years. The self-willed and headstrong nature of both husband and wife, and Charlotte's lack of household skills, proved disastrous. Phelan beat her, and she was horrified by the roughness of barracks life and by the violence against Native Americans.
Returning from Nova Scotia, Phelan took her to Kilkenny, where he was involved in a lawsuit with the trustees of his estate. Phelan spent long periods in Dublin, leaving her to copy legal documents. Religious reading produced a conversion experience, and she began writing evangelical tracts. She contacted local evangelicals and the Dublin-based Evangelical Tract Society, which published her work under the pen-name ‘Charlotte Elizabeth’ (to conceal it from her husband) and provided a vital support network. When Phelan was ordered to America she refused to accompany him, determined to support herself and her mother (returned from Portugal) by her pen. Over the following twenty years she composed numerous protestant tracts and novels; admirers included Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote an introduction to the two-volume New York Works of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna in 1844.
Tonna saw the failure of the Irish gentry to convert Irish catholics to protestantism as part of a wider pattern of neglected duties. She engaged in charitable work among the poor in Kilkenny, and took particular interest in the education of the deaf, adopting a deaf mute, John Britt, whom she taught to read, write, and abhor the catholicism of his parents. She loved him as a foster-son but trained him as a servant.
In 1824 she lived for some time in the vicarage of Hans Hamilton, rector of Knocktopher, which was virtually besieged by Rockite agrarian rebels. Under these circumstances she read Memoirs of Captain Rock, by Thomas Moore (qv), which she called incitement to rebellion inspired by the Vatican. Her first Irish novel, The Rockite (1829), reflects the controversies triggered by Moore's work.
In the summer of 1824 Phelan reappeared and claimed her literary earnings (as law then allowed). He was not able to enforce his claim (apparently because of personal difficulties and the influence of her patrons), but she moved to England under the protection of her brother, just returned from Portugal. In 1824–5 she lived near Clifton, near her heroine Hannah More, then moved to Sandhurst, where her brother taught at the military academy. She was traumatised by his sudden death in 1828 (drowned in Co. Westmeath while serving with his regiment – she later helped to raise his family), as also by catholic emancipation and the death of John Britt from tuberculosis.
She returned to an involvement with societies aimed at converting Irish catholics through the Irish language (whose potential for evangelisation had not previously occurred to her). She moved to London, evangelised among Irish immigrants, and helped found an Irish-language Anglican congregation. This brought her into contact with the millennialist network among the south Ulster gentry, led by the 3rd earl of Roden (qv), and with Henry Cooke (qv); she supported their attempts to ally anglican and presbyterian conservatives.
As editor of the Christian Lady's Magazine (1836–46) and the Protestant Magazine (1841–6), she denounced the Oxford movement and whig concessions to O'Connellism, highlighting Church of Ireland clergy dispossessed by the anti-tithe campaigns. Her best-known novel, Derry (first ed. 1833; rev. 1836), reprinted throughout the nineteenth century, reflects these concerns. Her emphasis on endurance of suffering and the disruption of the domestic circle by death suggests the city as an emblem of her troubled soul, as does her best-known verse, ‘The maiden city’, personifying Derry as a matriarch resisting male violence. (She saw the Orange Order as encapsulating cross-class protestant unity, wrote several other Orange verses, and denounced its suppression in 1836.)
Phelan's death in 1837 allowed her to revisit Ireland. She travelled along the east and north coasts, visting people and places connected with the Second Reformation movement (including Roden, Cooke, and Major Henry Charles Sirr (qv)). She also visited her brother's grave and the city of Derry, where Apprentice Boys enrolled her as an honorary member. Her tour is described in Letters from Ireland (1838). In 1841 she married her journalistic collaborator Lewis Tonna, an ultra-protestant twelve years her junior, of Maltese descent.
In her later years she renounced fiction and devoted herself to social commentary, notably The perils of the nation (1843), which attacked lassez-faire providentialism and advocated paternalist provision for the poor based on a mixture of Old Testament principles and confused tory nostalgia. She campaigned for Lord Shaftesbury's factory legislation and was an abolitionist (she resigned from the Anti-Slavery Society in protest over Daniel O'Connell's (qv) participation). She was also a strong opponent of anti-Semitism among evangelicals, which she denounced so fiercely that she was accused of crypto-Judaism. (Though her philo-Semitism reflected millennialist conversionism, it won her the respect and friendship of leading British Jews.)
In 1844 she developed inoperable cancer and became partially paralysed, though continuing to write, with the assistance of an apparatus of her own invention, until two months before her death. She died on 12 July 1846 at Ramsgate. The religious commitment that validated her proto-feminist career and genuine sympathy for the oppressed also underpinned a hierarchical world-view whose paternalism was experienced as bigoted tyranny by many intended recipients. A copy of her Personal recollections (1846) is in the NLI.