uch of the information that we have about Tonna comes to us through her memoirs Personal Recollections (1841). She provides us with a gripping account of her life, in some ways similar to autobiographies that are written today: part personal memoir, part travelogue and part near fiction. Moreover, her memoirs give us a fascinating glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman — a woman with a social conscience and a number of causes to champion — living at a time of great social change and progress. Tonna was fifty-one and in good health when Personal Recollections was published, yet she was anxious to pre-empt any unauthorised biographies or future speculation about her life. She recognised that her life was "by no means deficient in remarkable incidents" (Personal Recollections 3) and she knew that her troubled marital history could be open to numerous (and perhaps dubious) interpretations. In an attempt to retain her privacy, Tonna made her friends and acquaintances promise that in the event of her death they would destroy all her letters and other correspondence.
Personal Recollections commences with Tonna's memories of her childhood and family life. She was born on October 1st 1790, the only daughter of the Reverend Michael Browne, an Anglican priest and a minor canon of Norwich Cathedral and her earliest memories are of living in an Episcopal palace within the Cathedral precincts. The very "Englishness" of Norwich, coupled with its unique history, led Tonna firmly to believe that being raised in such a locality was instrumental in forming her deep patriotism and strong attachment to Protestantism. The spot where the martyrs suffered, the Lollards' Pit, was just outside the town and Tonna remembers being taken there by her father, who explained that it was the place where "Mary burnt good people alive for refusing to worship wooden images" (PR 13). Her curiosity was aroused, but, rather than answer her stream of questions, her father presented her with an old folio of John Foxe's (1516-87) Acts and Monuments (1563) — commonly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs — which she poured over "with aching eyes and a palpitating heart" (PR 13). When her father next found her she looked at him with burning cheeks and asked: "may I be burned to death for my religion, as these were? I want to be a martyr" (PR 14).
Of Tonna's mother we learn very little from Personal Recollections apart from the fact that her maiden name was Murray and she was the daughter of an eminent physician. She seems to have been the epitome of the "angel in the house" so revered by Victorian society: selfless, pious and totally domestic. In contrast, Tonna confesses to having had a natural antipathy to anything that did not engage her intellectual powers, and, as a result, gave her mother no help at all with running the household. With a trace of arrogance, Tonna admits that she dismissed all the usual female pursuits and interests of her day as trivial. Loftily she writes: "I imbibed a thorough contempt for women, children, and household affairs, entrenching myself behind invisible barriers that few, very few, could pass" (PR 25).
Tonna's contempt for domesticity and feminine interests seems to have had its origin in her (admittedly progressive) father's attitude to such things. He was furious when he discovered that Tonna, aged eight, was about to be fitted for stays, presumably at the instigation of her mother. Her father also frowned on fashionable women's shoes that compressed the feet, fearing that they would lead to deformity. Tonna admits that she did not grow into a graceful wand-like figure with "a wasp or an hour-glass" shape yet she "passed muster very fairly among mere human forms, of God's moulding (PR 31). She stresses that because she never suffered for fashion or beauty she managed to avoid "headaches, and other lady-like maladies" for her entire life (PR 31).
Tonna had not always enjoyed such good health. In an attempt to cure a temporary attack of blindness, doctors had experimentally prescribed mercury. It proved to be so toxic that it left her "hovering on the verge of the grave" (PR 26). She is adamant that the total loss of her hearing, before she was ten years old, was owing to such severe treatment. As a consequence of her profound deafness, she took refuge in reading books, shutting herself away in her room and shunning all forms of human contact. Her parents were so concerned that they called in a fresh set of doctors who decided that an immediate removal to the countryside was necessary if she was to survive. To this effect, her father exchanged parochial duties with a colleague, took over his village congregation at Bawburgh, four miles west of Norwich, and engaged a house near the church. Here Tonna had the opportunity to fulfil all the conditions that had been ordered by the doctors: "I was to have unbounded liberty; to live entirely in the open air, save when the weather forbade; [and] to be amused with all rural occupations" (PR 27). Most extraordinary was the recommendation that she should frequent farmyards for the purpose of inhaling the breath of cows.
Throughout Personal Recollections Tonna returns time and time again to the intense fraternal bond that she shared with her "second self": her younger brother and only sibling, John Murray Browne. Whereas her relationship with her father flourished in an atmosphere of shared intellectual and political interests, her relationship with her brother seems to have been founded on their differences. She admits that he was her complete opposite:
Not that he resembled me in any respect, for he was beautiful to a prodigy, and I an ordinary child; he was wholly free from any predilection for learning, being mirthful and volatile in the highest degree (PR 12).
From a very young age, Tonna's brother had wanted to be a soldier. She recalls how he would toddle away from the gate after the fife and drum of a military recruiting party. Much to her later regret, Tonna encouraged him in his ambitions, viewing the matter at the time through "the lying medium of romance: glory, fame, a conqueror's wreath or a hero's grave" (PR 64). In Personal Recollections, Tonna provides only a brief sketch of her brother's military career although further details about him are revealed in an obituary written by a Dr Southey in the Quarterly Review for July 1829 that appears as an appendix to the fourth edition of Personal Recollections, published in 1854. From this record we learn that he obtained a commission in 1809 and joined the 48th Regiment in Spain where he fought in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). Following a period in which he commanded a Portuguese infantry regiment her brother returned to England with his family to commence two years of study at the Military College at Sandhurst in order to qualify for a future senior staff position. Her brother and his family (including Tonna and her mother) moved to an isolated cottage on the edge of Bagshot Heath; Tonna recalls that the years she spent living with her brother in this location were some of the happiest of her life. Tragically, John Murray Browne drowned in a boating accident whilst posted with his regiment in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland, in 1829.
Tonna was twenty-two years old when, following her father's premature death, she moved with her mother to London to make a long stay with some near relations. It was there that she became acquainted with a man, "an officer on leave of absence, whose wife, at the end of six months, I became" (PR 73). Thus, in just one sentence Tonna recalls the most important and life-changing event of her life: her first marriage. In the event, it was to be a marriage that was to cause her great anguish, tarnish her image and darken her life for twenty-four years. Although she does not mention him by name, Lieutenant George Phelan, an Irishman, had entered her life. Following this revelation, Tonna steers the narrative swiftly away, hurrying along to what she wanted to portray as the most important moment of her life, her conversion to evangelical Christianity: "I am longing to arrive at that period when the light of the glorious gospel of Christ first shone on me through the darkness of many trying dispensations: therefore I pass by much that intervened" (PR 74). Indeed, to this effect, she skips over her courtship and early days of marriage, turning next to her memories of her journey across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia.
Her reticence has rendered it necessary to seek information elsewhere about her first husband. According to records held at the National Archives, George Phelan (1791-1837) was in the same regiment as Tonna's brother — the 48th (or Northamptonshire) Regiment — which he joined on the 14th June 1811. Interestingly, Phelan's first impressions of Tonna came to him through her letters to her brother. The couple were married on 15th May 1813 at St Mary's church in Lambeth. Later that year Phelan was posted to British North America (now Canada), at first to Halifax, where he joined the 7th Battalion of the 60th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Royal American (later the King's Own Rifle Corps) as a field officer. Whilst he was there he was promoted to captain. It was almost certainly from this location that Tonna received a summons to follow him without delay.
From 1815 to 1816, Tonna's husband was with his regiment in Annapolis Royal, British North America. His unit then moved on to Fort Edward in Windsor, Nova Scotia, where he stayed until 1818. Dates are rarely mentioned in Personal Recollections, but Tonna writes of having spent time in both these locations. Altogether, Tonna's sojourn in British North America was only of about two years' duration, yet her experiences of that time were to become indelibly imprinted on her memory only to emerge later in her writing. Recalling her time in British North America, Tonna hints that all was not well with her marriage. She makes no mention of her husband, although she writes obliquely of "adverse circumstances" and of having passed through "many waters of affliction" (PR 84). L.S. Loomer has unearthed some interesting and revealing eyewitness accounts that serve to shed light on Tonna's first marriage:
Old residents of Annapolis used to recall [Tonna] sitting in church while her husband repeated the sermons to her by the finger alphabet. Captain Phelan was not always that kind. He was known to beat his wife, which he did increasingly during the remaining years of their marriage, while he became progressively insane. [Loomer 10]
In addition, Monica Correa Fryckstedt has discovered a letter written by Tonna to her physician, which supports the suggestion that Phelan was mentally ill. In this letter Tonna confided to her doctor how her life as Mrs Phelan had been full of "�sufferings during a very unhappy marriage to one really deranged in mind'" (quoted in Fryckstedt 82).
Following her time in British North America Tonna accompanied her husband to Ireland where his family had a small estate. She lived there for five years and three months, for much of the time completely on her own, while Phelan supervised a lawsuit in Dublin. It was here that she befriended and later adopted an Irish deaf-mute boy named Jack Britt whose conversion to Protestantism become for her "a crown of rejoicing" (PR 178). In 1820 Phelan was ordered abroad to rejoin his regiment in British North America. She declined to cross the Atlantic a second time, and this seems to have marked the start of their marital estrangement.
Phelan is alluded to just once more in Personal Recollections. Like a spectre from the past he crops up at a time when Tonna believed herself to be safely settled with her brother at Sandhurst. Tonna wrote prolifically during this period driven by a desire to become financially independent. Yet it would seem that Phelan had other ideas:
I was going on most prosperously when an attempt was suddenly made from another quarter to establish a claim to the profits of my pen. The demand was, probably, legal, according to the strict letter of existing statutes, though circumstances would have weighed strongly in my favour. But it greatly reduced the value of my copyrights, for the time being, and I found myself checked in my career at a juncture when it was especially my desire to go on steadily (PR 222).
Legally, Phelan could claim his wife's earnings as his property under a law that would not be revoked until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. It was at this juncture that Tonna adopted the pen name "Charlotte Elizabeth" in an attempt to protect her income and anonymity. However, had Phelan been intent on demanding his share it is unlikely that a change of name alone would have been sufficient; it is far more likely that it was his deteriorating health that kept him from pursuing the matter.
Personal Recollections is our chief source of knowledge about Tonna's life, but, as it is written entirely from her point of view, it is likely to be biased and possibly unreliable. What is clear is that when Phelan died Tonna finally escaped the socially embarrassing position that she had endured as a woman living apart from her husband. As Clara Lucas Balfour notes: "in 1837, the death of Captain Phelan released her from what had evidently been a grievous yoke" (Balfour 39). Tonna had coped with her difficult situation, partly because of her indomitable character, and partly because, as an evangelical, she accepted it all as part of God's great plan for her. For this reason, she had submitted to what she believed was God's punishment willingly and endured her suffering silently. Her reward in this life came in the form of another far more satisfactory husband. In 1841 she married Lewis Tonna (1812-57), a man twenty-two years her junior. With him, she at last found all the "abundance of domestic peace" (PR 367) that had eluded her during her unfortunate marriage to Phelan.
It was some time in 1824, the year between her arrival in England from Ireland and the return of her brother from Portugal, that Tonna first became personally acquainted with the celebrated evangelical reformer Hannah More (1745-1833). Tonna visited More at her cottage in Clifton, near Bristol, where she had retired after the traumatic Blagdon controversy. More would have been nearly eighty at this time and Tonna describes her as a "sweet old lady" and an "aged saint" (PR 209). More's success in setting up a chain of educational establishments may have provided the encouragement that Tonna needed to start a Sunday school of her own.
It was during her two-year stay in Sandhurst that Tonna had the opportunity to satisfy her "great interest in the young" (PR 290) and to test her educational methods. Although Tonna's primary intention for setting up her school was to make the pupils more than nominal Protestants, she does not hide the fact that she had another motive for impressing the teachings of the Scriptures on the village children. It was her wish to provide a religious framework and a moral foundation to prepare them for what she describes as "noble" work. She saw this as imperative at a time of great industrial change and political agitation, especially for the children of the class above the very poor. For as she notes: "They are the most important class, as we shall soon find; for from them are the Chartist bodies officered, and active agents supplied in works of infinite mischief" (PR 297).
As well as her fervent desire to spread the word of God through her writing and her teaching, Tonna was a fervent proselytiser intent on converting Irish Catholics to Protestantism. She was instrumental in setting up a Protestant church in the St. Giles area of London for the benefit of Irish immigrant slum dwellers and she resolved to visit in person every case of poverty brought to her notice. Her friends were aghast at her proposal, fearing that the "Irish savages" would murder her, but she was not to be deterred. Revealingly, she compares her task to the work of missionaries in Sierra Leone, "or other missionary stations where many ladies went" (PR 336). She claims that the Irish welcomed her with open arms and that she never once experienced an unkind word or disrespectful look from anyone she tried to help. It was her belief that she was valued because although the Irish knew her to be "the enemy of their religion" they nevertheless recognised that she was "the loving friend of their country and of their souls" (PR 337).
Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna: "A Life by no means deficient in remarkable incidents"
__________. 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