Wolverhampton BTW

Charlotte Elizabeth Phelan

Phelan, Charlotte Elizabeth née Browne, later Tonna, 1790—1846

by Benjamin Colbert

Charlotte Elizabeth Browne was born on 1 October 1790 at Norwich, the daughter of Michael Browne (d. 1811), vicar of Worstead and minor canon of Norwich Cathedral, and Charlotte Browne, née Murray (bap. 1761) (Bury and Norwich Post; Crisp 48). At ten, she lost her hearing, and immersed herself in literature, especially Shakespeare, studies that she would later repudiate as idle and unchristian.

In 1813, she married Captain George Phelan (d. 1837), a surgeon in the army and friend of her brother, Captain John Murray Browne (1792-1828). For three years they resided at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where George Phelan had been posted, and thereafter largely in Ireland where he owned properties. She published her first book, Poems Founded on the Events of the War in the Peninsula (1819), as ‘the Wife of an Officer’, but any respect she might have wished to reflect on her husband was squandered by his physical abuse of her, and her subsequent works were published under her given name alone, ‘Charlotte Elizabeth’. The couple separated in 1824, and she went to live with her brother at Clifton. There she came under the influence of the Anglican evangelical Hannah More, to whom she dedicated her second book of poems, Osric (1825).

During the next two decades Charlotte Elizabeth published numerous tales, tracts, and novels, all tending to promote a radical evangelical message. Like her friend from the late 1820s, the Reverend Hugh McNeile (1795-1879; ODNB), she was outspoken in her promotion of Christianity among Jews and in her anti-Catholicism. While she typically couches her anti-Catholicism in a tone of heightened intolerance, her attitude towards Judaism was more complex. She wrote against anti-Semitism and maintained friendships with leading figures in the Jewish community, including Sir Moses Montefiore.

Her interest in Ireland and its people dates back to her first visit with George Phelan, during which time she toured widely, partly as a distraction from her marriage. She returned to the matter of Ireland with her historical novel Derry (1833) which presents in fiction the case for a Protestant ascendancy and unaccommodatingly looks forward to a day in which ‘Popery unmasked be the prelude to Popery destroyed’ (iv). Her only travel book, Letters from Ireland (1838), followed a brief visit the previous year, from June to August 1837. The book delights in Irish scenery but characteristically lays the blame for the country’s economic woes and agricultural unproductivity firmly at the door of Catholicism and its institutions.

Her estranged husband, George Phelan, died in 1838, and three years later, in 1841, Charlotte Elizabeth married Lewis Hippolytus Joseph Tonna (1812-57; ODNB), who shared her religious principles, and also wrote tracts. She continued to write prolifically until her early death. She attacked the factory system as anathema to the spiritual well-being of the poor in Helen Fleetwood (serialized 1839–40), Perils of the Nation (1842), and The Wrongs of Woman (serialized 1843–44). Her Mesmerism. A Letter to Miss Martineau (1844) censured Harriet Martineau for promoting Mesmerism as a cure for physical ailments. In her final months, she had recourse to a roller machine that allowed her to write continuously on scrolls while seated, with little exertion, and thus she composed her final work, War with the Saints, published posthumously in 1848 (Tonna 416). She died at Ramsgate on 12 June 1846, suffering from breast cancer.


The Bury and Norwich Post, no. 1518 (Tues., 31 July 1811). Gale Databases: British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900. Web. 27 Dec. 2017.

Crisp, Frederick Arthur. Fragmenta Genealogica. Vol. 12 (1906). Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1997. Print.

Lenard, Mary. 'Tonna [née Browne], Charlotte Elizabeth (1790–1846), writer and social reformer'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Oxford University Press. Web. 27 Dec. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27537

Tonna, Charlotte Elizabeth. Personal Recollections. By Charlotte Elizabeth. 3rd ed., Continued to the Close of Her Life. London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1847. Print.


Title Published
Letters from Ireland MDCCCXXXVII 1838

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