A Mile or Two outside Worthing

Richard Jenkyns

  • Lord Byron’s Jackal: A Life of Trelawny by David Crane
    HarperCollins, 398 pp, £19.99, July 1998, ISBN 0 00 255631 6

And shall Trelawny die? It seems not, since David Crane’s book is the fourth life of him to have been published in the last sixty years. Yet it is an odd sort of immortality which leaves a man with someone else’s name in the title of his biography. It was Joseph Severn, the amiable artist whose kindness sweetened Keats’s last months, who referred to Trelawny as ‘Lord Byron’s jackal’. The phrase was less harsh than it may seem to a modern ear, since a jackal, in the parlance of the time, was someone who busied himself on another’s behalf; but for Crane the metaphor has both a keener and a darker edge. He calls his first chapter ‘The Wolf Cub’, and finds in Trelawny a variety of lupine characteristics: courage, fierceness, savagery and a prowling restlessness; both loyalty and ingratitude; the passion to attach himself to a leader and the readiness to turn on that leader should he faint or fail.

‘But tell me who is this odd fish?’ Severn also asked, and Crane’s book is an attempt to answer that question. Edward John Trelawny was born in 1792 and died in 1881. In his later years he was a legendary figure, farouche and craggy, a solitary survivor from an epoch which already seemed fabulously remote: here, living on deep into the later Victorian age was a man who had once seen Shelley plain, and Byron, too, and who had looked on both their corpses. But on Crane’s account, almost the whole of his long life was disappointing, and disappointed: its brilliant or crucial moments were intense but brief. For some months, from January 1822, he was part of the circle of exiles around Byron and Shelley in Pisa, which had formed in 1820 and broke up after the tatter’s death in July 1822. He wrote Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858), revised and augmented twenty years later as Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, which Crane judges ‘perhaps one of the two finest literary memoirs in the language’ (no prizes for naming the other). In between, he went to fight in the Greek War of Independence, an adventure which culminated in the extraordinary months he spent in the Mavre Troupa, or Black Hole, a cave high on the northern flanks of Mount Parnassus. This episode, remarkable though it was, would have been forgotten but for Trelawny’s later celebrity as the friend of poets, but for Crane it is the central moment of his life.

Trelawny’s childhood seems to have been unhappy and unloved, a misfortune to which Crane attributes much of his later character. An angry failure at school, he was put into the Navy at the age of 13, joining up just too late to take part in the Battle of Trafalgar. Baulked of this opportunity for heroic warfare, he spent several frustrating years as a midshipman, finally seeing action in Mauritius and Java. Then, on his own account, he deserted, joined up with a mysterious Dutchman who spoke most European languages and ail the native tongues from Malay to Hindustani faultlessly, became a pirate, and married the fair Zela, shy and lovely as a fawn, only to see her expire in his arms after being attacked by a shark. Or rather, he didn’t For this history comes from his other book, Adventures of a Younger Son, not wholly fiction, but notorious for its fantasy and self-aggrandisement. Had Trelawny been nothing but a braggart, his lies would diminish him; ironically, because his real life was to become, for a while, so genuinely romantic and melodramatic, his fabrications seem to add yet more brio to the larger-than-life swagger; the shaggy-dog stories become part of a more general shagginess. He may not have cremated his dusky bride by the shore of a tropic sea, but he was to cremate Shelley on an Italian beach in circumstances hardly less theatrical. He may not have been a brigand in the East, but he was to share the life of brigands in Greece.

The Adventures of a Younger Son, published in 1831, was written some years after his Greek experiences had given him an authentic claim to a ruffianly heroism; why then did he feel the need to embroider his earlier life? Perhaps, as a man who liked to live dangerously, he enjoyed courting the risk of exposure. Crane suggests – what must remain speculation – that he began to develop his fantasy picture of himself as a psychological compensation for the dingy and humiliating years that followed his return to England after his service in the Navy ended in 1812. He married, fathered two daughters, and took lodgings in Bristol, in which shabby-genteel surroundings the supposed buccaneer and lover of Zela was repeatedly cuckolded by a much older captain in the 98th of Foot. Eventually his wife eloped, and he managed to obtain a divorce, at the cost of having the whole sordid farce of dropped pantaloons and hasty concealments in bedrooms dragged for almost two years through the civil and ecclesiastical courts. Crane quotes at some length from the landlady’s deposition, which offers a glimpse into what he well describes as ‘a world poised between a Rowlandesque’ – presumably Rowlandsonesque – ‘coarseness and an encroaching moral censoriousness’.

The new moralism was alien to Trelawny’s temperament, the Rowlandsonian comedy injurious to his pride; and not long after his divorce was finally obtained he left England for the Continent. Bobbing like a bottle cast on the waters, he was carried by seemingly random currents towards his destined place in Italy and literary history, drifting from England to Paris and from Paris to Geneva and the Alps, where he made some new friends, among them Shelley’s cousin, Thomas Medwin. Shelley and his dependants had themselves been floating from one Italian town to another, from Milan to Bagni di Lucca, Venice, Naples, Rome, Leghorn and Florence, reaching Pisa early in 1820. Two years later, Trelawny joined them there.

For Trelawny, obscure, aimless and uneducated, this was an unlikely introduction to genius. To his new acquaintance, though, he was the Byronic hero made flesh, a Corsair or Lara who had lived the adventures which poets had only written about Broadly built, magnetic and personable, he could play billiards with Byron and talk sentiment with the ladies. Here he founded the friendships and enmities which were to mark the rest of his life. He was to become the keeper of Shelley’s flame. His devotion to Byron was to curdle into jealousy and hatred. He was to maintain a friendship with Mary Shelley until a bitter estrangement many years later. With Claire Clairmont, the mistress whom Byron discarded, he formed in these Italian months what was at least an amitié amoureuse; it was, Crane thinks, ‘probably the most honest relationship of his life’, but for half a century, through the long, bleak years of her exile (she became a governess in Russia), it was conducted entirely by correspondence. Claire Clairmont suffered many vicissitudes; but throughout them all, until her death in Italy, lonely and religious, she maintained an implacable hatred of the man who had loved and abandoned her, the father of her child; and in this Trelawny abetted her.

Trelawny’s short Julian period certainly changed his own life; but did he himself make a difference? ‘It is given to few men to kill two major poets,’ Crane remarks. The epigram was too good to resist but like Trelawny himself, it goes beyond the strict truth. It is hard to see that Trelawny killed Byron in any sense at all (Crane mutters something about Byron turning to him for his doctors but does not explain further); perhaps there is a better case for saying that Trelawny saved Shelley from becoming a Victorian. It was to Trelawny, as the former Naval man, that Shelley turned when he wanted to commission a boat, and it was Trelawny who wrote the letter reducing the original specifications by almost half, ensuring that the Don Juan (as the craft was perhaps apdy called) would not survive that fatal storm in the Gulf of Spezia. It was Trelawny, too, who led the expedition which disinterred the poet’s body from its shallow grave on the sands where it had been washed ashore. In this lonely place, they poured oil and wine on the corpse and set it alight. Trelawny watched Shelley’s brains seethe and bubble, but he snatched the heart from the flames, burning his hand severely. In old age, when he had become the ancient priest of Shelley’s cult, he would show the burns to visiting pilgrims like stigmata. There were even relics: he used to display the poet’s jawbone, and presented W.M. Rossetti with a fragment of his forehead.

A month after meeting him, Mary Shelley was comparing him to Anastasius, the hero of Thomas Hope’s romantic novel of adventures in the East. His is indeed a story in which fact and fiction become curiously intermingled. His correspondence sometimes recalls the letter-writers in Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship. To Claire Clairmont he wrote: ‘Why have you thus plunged me into excruciating misery by deserting him that would – but bleed on in silence my heart – let not the cold and heartless mock thee with their triumphs.’ It was to her again that he explained what drew him to Greece: ‘My ardent love of freedom spurs me on to assist in the struggle for freedom. When was there so glorious a banner flying as that unfurled in Greece? – who would not fight under it?’

He was not present at Byron’s death, but arrived at the scene a few days later. In the most famous act of his life – or what would be the most famous act, but for the likelihood that it never actually happened – he uncovered the corpse to learn the secret of the poet’s lameness. ‘Both his feet were clubbed,’ he wrote later, ‘and his legs withered to the knee – the form and features of an Apollo, with the feet of a sylvan satyr.’ Curiously enough, Byron had, according to Thomas Medwin, described Sheridan in similar terms: ‘The upper part was that of a god ... but below he showed the satyr.’ Is it possible that Trelawny derived at least the terms of his description from Byron himself?

Crane gives a strong and vivid account of the forces at work in the Greek War of Independence: that strange collection of idealists and misfits known now as the Philhellenes, some of whom were to meet hideous ends, captured and impaled by the Turks; the ghastly atrocities committed by both Turks and Greeks; the conflicts between the educated Constantinopolitan Greeks and the klephts in the mountains; the bitter enmities between one klepht and another. Trelawny attached himself to one of these guerrillas, Odysseus Androutses, the last of the hero figures in his life. Under attack from his (Greek) enemies, Odysseus took refuge in his cave on Parnassus, and opened negotiations with the Turks. Trelawny stayed loyal to him; despite his ‘ardent love of freedom’, he had effectively changed sides.

And so to the Mavre Troupa, towards which Crane sees all Trelawny’s life, past and future, being sucked: ‘For the early part of his life he had lived through his fantasies: from now on, he would live off them It was as if ... with his exit from the cave his life was “complete”.’ It was a cave out of grand opera, furnished with carpets, fabrics and loot plundered from churches, richly supplied with sumptuous food and barrels of brandy; and its inhabitants included Tersitza, Odysseus’ 13-year-old half-sister, whom Trelawny ‘married’. Dressed in the costume of a native brigand, here at last he found his zest for adventure fulfilled. Landor was to include among his Imaginary Conversations a high-flown dialogue between Trelawny, Odysseus and Tersitza, but for once the reality outdid fiction. Odysseus rashly gave himself up to his enemies; he was taken to Athens, imprisoned on the Acropolis, tortured and murdered (officially, he fell to his death while trying to escape). Trelawny continued to live in the cave. Here he was joined by a Captain Fenton, apparently a spy planted by his enemies, and then by a weak-willed young man named William Whitcombe. Fenton somehow persuaded Whitcombe to attempt Trelawny’s assassination. Whitcombe shot and wounded Trelawny; Fenton was killed by one of Trelawny’s henchmen; and Whitcombe was seized and held in chains, gibbering with fear, in the recesses of the cave. After a while, in a gesture of romantic magnanimity, Trelawny, though badly hurt, released him. Trelawny himself was eventually rescued by a British officer, who brought him to the ship that carried him to safety. Whitcombe later wrote an account of his experiences in the form of a novel modelled on Anastasius. This time, though, it was fact that took the disguise of fiction.

Crane walks a tricky tightrope: on the one hand, he wants to insist on how much of the man’s life must remain unknowable; on the other, he is ready to speculate pretty freely on his psychology. He brings it off. It is a fault in British culture to place too high a value on biography, the easiest form of history; but this is an excellent biography. Crane inhabits Trelawny’s various worlds – the Regency lodging house, the Victorian drawing-room, the bandit cave – with perfect ease; his narrative is enlivened with many flashes of often cynical wit but also with evocative descriptions of place and an unforced feeling for the past.

He concedes – or rather, he insists – that the second half of Trelawny’s life was an anticlimax. Life, Trelawny mused in his old age, is not worth much after thirty. In 1833, he attempted to swim the river below the Niagara Falls (which Crane oddly believes to be the Hudson) and almost drowned; among the chaos of his impressions at that moment he recognised a hope that he might die in the pride of his strength, before the humiliations of age overtook him. It was not to be. He joined that group of reformers known as the Philosophic Radicals, but in the group portrait reproduced in Crane’s book he looks almost ludicrously out of place – hairy and open-necked among so much sleek highmindedness, like a tramp who has intruded on Matins in Surrey. He married again – for the second or the fourth time, depending on who iscounting – and lived a bohemian life for some years with his new family in the Welsh border country near Usk. They would bathe naked in the river, sometimes joined by Zella, his daughter by Tersitza, as a splash of exotic colour. But this marriage, too, broke up. Trelawny’s final years were spent a mile or two outside Worthing, though his remains were taken to Rome to be buried at Shelley’s side. His last recorded words were ‘lies, lies, lies.’.