An influx, over the last few days, of books about Byron: Lord Byron’s Correspondence, edited by John Murray IV, grandson of his friend and publisher; Correspondence of Lord Byron (and much more besides), edited by the Rev. A.R.C. Dallas, son of a friend of the poet; Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington, edited by that lady. And in the autumn, we will be reissuing the first series of ‘English Men of Letters’, published by Macmillan from 1879, under the general editorship of John Morley, the colleague and biographer of Gladstone. The series includes works on Burns, Cowper, Gray, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Landor, all by then accepted figures in the literary canon, the controversy and notoriety engendered by many of them by now forgotten, or airbrushed, or both.
This is why Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858) is such a startling read. Edward Trelawny describes his friendship with the Shelleys and Byron from 1821 to 1824, and includes a detailed account of the drowning of Shelley in a shipwreck, and his ‘pagan’ cremation during which ‘Tre’ notoriously pulled the poet’s heart from the burning corpse. The narrative continues with Byron’s voyage to Greece and his death at Missolonghi. Trelawny was not present at the end, but inspected the embalmed body five days later, wanting to find out the truth about the deformed leg which Byron always concealed from the world: his nervous manservant covered the limbs up again, ‘so strongly had his weak and superstitious nature been acted upon by the injunctions and threats of his master, that, alive or dead, no one was to see his feet, for if they did, he would haunt him, &c., &c.’
Trelawny was frustrated in his desire to have another pagan cremation (Byron’s family insisting that the body was returned to the family vault in England), and the remainder of his book consists of an account of his own heroic part in the liberation of Greece, alongside Odysseus Androutsos, according to him the only honest and courageous man among the rabble of oily politicians and money-grasping rogues who had between them lured Byron to Greece in the first place (his fame would, they believed, attract British gold to their cause) and then left him to die of fever in the notorious swamps of Missolonghi.
At this point, if not earlier, doubts seep in. Androutsos was undoubtedly courageous, but he was no less money-grasping, ambitious, fractious and cruel than all the other Suliotes and Phanariotes whom Trelawny excoriates, and (although views differ) he may have been attempting to defect to the Turkish side when he was captured by them, imprisoned in Athens and met his death in murky circumstances.
And, you then wonder, was Trelawny such an able and disinterested guide and counsellor to Shelley and Byron as his account would have you believe? The narrative is full of wonderful detail about the personalities of both poets – he clearly preferred Shelley (‘the Poet’) to Byron (‘the Pilgrim’), if only for the former’s courtesy and gentleness of manner, as opposed to the latter’s cynicism, rudeness and acerbity – but somehow, when things go well it is all down to Trelawny, and when things go badly it is because they would not take his advice.
Turning to the ODNB entry on Trelawny, you would find any suspicions more than confirmed. At the lowest factual level, for example, when Trelawny rewrote the book in 1878 (and renamed it Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author), the nature of Byron’s deformity was changed. His so-called ‘autobiography’ of 1831, Adventures of a Younger Son, is almost certainly mostly fiction – it has him marrying a wild teenage girl who wanders the world alongside him, whereas his actual first marriage ended in a public and humiliating divorce when his wife, a British merchant’s daughter, abandoned him for her much older lover. People wondered if Byron’s Conrad or Manfred was based on Trelawny, but in fact it was the other way round – Trelawny devoted most of his time and energy to being a Byronic hero, and was always keen to out-Byron the poet, whether in swimming, riding or shooting competitions.
At the end of Recollections, Trelawny quotes, in passing, Thomas Gordon’s History of the Greek Revolution, which he describes as ‘always fearless and generally accurate’: ‘on taking the field, Odysseus deposited his family in his den on Mount Parnassus, which he confided to the guard of Trelawny (who had lately married his youngest sister) … ’. This girl, otherwise unmentioned in the narrative, was thirteen at the time, and had no common language with her new husband. She gave birth to one daughter, but on becoming pregnant again, retreated to a convent, from which (aged seventeen) she divorced him. (The second child died.)
In later life, Trelawny lived off, and tried to add incidents to, his Byronic reputation, dying (rather tamely, one feels) at Sompting near Worthing in 1881. Since cremation was illegal in Britain at the time, he had left instructions for his body to be sent to Gotha to be burnt, and the subsequent ashes laid in the plot in Rome which he had purchased for Shelley’s remains. A fantasist, a hanger-on, a vulture, an egomaniac? Probably all of these, but also a man of immense physical courage (the account of his wounding in a failed assassination attempt and subsequent recovery is nonchalant in the extreme), and crucially, a writer who, however prone to embroidery, could make his subjects live. Shelley: ‘Poor Mary! Hers is a sad fate … she can’t bear solitude, nor I society – the quick coupled with the dead.’ Or Byron: ‘I have a conscience, although the world gives me no credit for it; I am now repenting, not of the few sins I have committed, but of the many I have not committed.’