LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Edward John Trelawny:
Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron


Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.
Chapter XIII.
Chapter XIV.
Chapter XV.
Chapter XVI.
Chapter XVII.
Chapter XVIII.
Chapter XIX.
Chapter XX.
Chapter XXI.
Chapter XXII.
Chapter XXIII.
Chapter XXIV.
Chapter XXV.
Chapter XXVI.

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Following the death of the nonagenarian Samuel Rogers in 1855 Edward John Trelawny went on to become the chief living chronicler of romantic poets. While Rogers spent most of his long life engaged with politicians and men of letters, Trelawny, save for the few months spent in the Pisan circle in Italy, mixed little with the world, wrote little, and was largely forgotten when his memoirs appeared three years after Rogers’ death. Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858) was afterwards revised and expanded as Records of Byron, Shelley, and the Author (1878).
These memoirs, especially the latter, published after the deaths of nearly all who had known Byron and Shelley, brought renewed attention to the Trelawny whose personal eccentricities, quite as much as his writings, seemed to bring the earlier era back to vivid life. Following his death in 1881, however, Trelawny became the object of less flattering attention when the details of his account of the death of Shelley began to be challenged, culminating in the unflattering biographies by William St. Clair (1977) and David Crane (1999) which present not just Trelawny’s writings but his life as a tissue of fraud and deception.
Trelawny was an odd man who reveled in his oddities. Having served in the Pacific as a midshipman, he was given to spinning yarns about himself that involved a fictional pirate and violent encounters with wild beasts and savage tribesmen. These tales passed for truth, or at least partial truth, among the Byron-Shelley circle, and when Trelawny later collected and embroidered them as Adventures of a Younger Son (1831), he insisted that “all was true,” which it certainly was not. Yet it is not so obvious that Trelawny was a pathological liar. What he recorded about Byron and Shelley was, if not the whole unvarnished truth, truth after the fashion of nineteenth-century memoirs—or rather, after the manner of nineteenth-century anecdotes: Trelawny’s, like Rogers’, acquired form and refinement through oral recitation and variation
Alienated from his wealthy family, the memoirist had been living as a sportsman in Switzerland when he and Edward Elleker Williams were invited by Thomas Medwin to visit Shelley in Pisa, where in January 1822 Shelley introduced Trelawny to Byron. Shelley’s passion for boating was communicated to the others, and Trelawny, Williams, and their friend Daniel Roberts were soon involved in a boat-building project. Trelawny became the skipper of the Bolivar, built for Byron, and Williams of the Don Juan, built for Shelley. After Shelley and Williams were drowned in July 1822 Trelawny arranged the famous cremation of the bodies and lent financial assistance to Mary Shelley.
In the summer of 1823 Byron again enlisted Trelawny’s services in traveling to Greece, and having spent time with Byron in Cephalonia Trelawny proceeded to the mainland with James Hamilton Browne to assess the political state of affairs. Trelawny was arranging a conference when he learned of Byron’s death; he hastened to Missolonghi where he looked after Byron’s remains as he had earlier for Shelley’s. Trelawny then enlisted with the rebellious Greek chieftain Odysseas Androutsos, marrying his sister and supervising affairs in his stronghold on Mount Parnassus. Having narrowly survived an assassination attempt he was evacuated to the Islands on a British ship.
Such is the sequence of events, though the memoir itself is less a continuous narrative than a series of anecdotes and descriptive vignettes arranged into a character study of the two poets. Leigh Hunt is thrown into the background, the rival biographer Thomas Medwin disappears, Claire Clairmont and Teresa Guiccioli are all but invisible, and Trelawny is uncharacteristically reticent about his actions in the Greek Revolution. The Recollections is narrowly focused on his personal interactions with Shelley and Byron.
Shelley is represented as the beau ideal of a poet: intellectual, otherworldly, kind—in contrast to Byron, who is depicted as shallow, cynical, and miserly. If the substance of the two portraits recalls Hunt’s Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828), Trelawny displays none of Leigh Hunt’s spleen and adds much circumstantial detail. He imparts a sense of sublimity to his scenes that neither Hunt nor Medwin nor the other memoirists seem capable of. The Recollections is memorably gothic, not only in its voyeuristic descriptions of mangled bodies, but in its alternation of idyllic and horrific scenes and its guilt-ridden, obsessive references to water and boats that keep the climactic events always in mind if not always in view.
The emotional power of the Recollections derives from this obsessiveness. While the memoirist knew Shelley for only six months, the encounter was obviously a life-changing experience. Trelawny, who afterwards became a vegetarian and political radical, seems to have emulated Shelley for much of his later life. His extravagant acts in arranging for Shelley’s cremation and burial, his difficult relationships with Shelley’s family, and his distribution of relics indicate the depth of his feelings for the dead poet with whom he arranged to have himself buried.
If Trelawny’s encounter with Byron was not so life-changing, it too seems to have been obsessive. The Trelawny Byron knew was a sportsman and not a writer and Byron responded to him as such: if he had “conversations” with Medwin, interactions with Trelawny took the form of riding, shooting, swimming, and boating. Trelawny boasts of his athletic triumphs over Byron in ways that suggest that the spirit of emulation remained strong decades for afterwards. Byron, who saw through Trelawny’s humbug, is himself presented as a poser. Trelawny betrays no empathy for the racking cares that afflicted Byron’s latter days and represents the poet (in contrast to himself) as a decayed and diffident dandy.
No doubt the same heated imagination at work in Adventures of a Younger Son was responsible for the success of the Recollections, but this need not imply that the latter is a parallel case. There are no fictive pirates or tiger-hunts; while Trelawny is selective in what he remembers or chooses to tell, there is no indication that he invents things out of whole cloth. Claire Clairmont and Jane Williams were both alive in 1858 and might have taken him to task if he had. As William St. Clair has shown, Trelawny did alter the letters he prints within the dubious norms acceptable at the time. The positiveness with which Trelawny makes assertions of fact and opinion does not carry conviction—especially given discrepancies between the two versions of his narrative—but neither does it imply mendacity. He was who he was; his memoir, like Leigh Hunt’s, is surely the better for bearing the stamp of its author’s difficult character.

David Hill Radcliffe