Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Trelawny, Edward John
TRELAWNY, EDWARD JOHN (1792–1881), author and adventurer, born in London on 13 Nov. 1792, was the second son of Lieutenant-colonel Charles Trelawny (1757–1820) of Shotwick, who in 1798 assumed the additional name of Brereton, and died in Soho Square on 10 Sept. 1820 (Gent. Mag. 1820, ii. 376). Trelawny-Brereton represented Mitchell in parliament in 1808–9 and again in 1814. He married, on 1 July 1786, Maria, sister of Sir Christopher Hawkins, bart., of Trewithen; she died at Brompton, aged 93, on 27 Sept. 1852. Edward's grandfather was General Henry Trelawny, who fought under Howe in America and was governor of Landguard Fort from 1793 until his death on 28 Jan. 1800.
According to his own account, which there seems no reason to question, Edward suffered severely from the harshness of his father, and his education was neglected. In October 1805 he entered the royal navy, and was sent out in Admiral Duckworth's ship, the Superb, for service in the fleet blockading Cadiz. He states in his ‘Adventures of a Younger Son’ that he lost the opportunity of sharing in the battle of Trafalgar on account of Duckworth's delaying on the Cornish coast to take in provisions. As, however, the battle was fought on 21 Oct., and Duckworth did not arrive off Cadiz until 15 Nov., his version of the circumstance seems improbable. It is certain that instead of being transferred from the Superb a few days after Trafalgar, as would be inferred from his narrative, Trelawny was not appointed to the Colossus until 20 Nov. The vessel was almost immediately ordered home to be paid off, and Trelawny quitted her on 29 Dec. with a satisfactory certificate. He was then placed for a time at Dr. Burney's naval academy at Greenwich, and, if his account in the ‘Adventures of a Younger Son’ can be accepted, went again to sea in a king's ship bound for the East Indies. This is prima facie probable, and his further statement that he deserted the ship at Bombay is corroborated by the absence of any record of a regular discharge. However imaginative or highly coloured the ‘Adventures of a Younger Son’ may be, the main fact of his having found his way to the Eastern Archipelago is unquestionable, and the sole chronological indication he vouchsafes, when he speaks in a letter to Mrs. Shelley of having been off the coast of Java in 1811, is confirmed by the existence among his papers of an official proclamation in Malay of the establishment of British authority over the island, endorsed by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles [q. v.], and dated 12 Sept. 1811; as well as by a note of the same date in a manuscript of the Koran which belonged to him. How far the incidents in the ‘Younger Son’ belong to romance, and how far to autobiography, it would be vain to investigate. The surpassing literary merit of the narrative is to some extent an argument for its veracity, since Trelawny, always strong in description, gave, apart from this book, if exception it be, no token of any particular gift for invention. The nautical details are frequently inaccurate, but their local colouring is generally as true as it is brilliant.
According to the most natural interpretation of his own words, Trelawny would seem to have returned to England about 1813, and in the same year or the next to have become ‘a shackled, care-worn, and spirit-broken married man of the civilised west.’ His wife was a Miss Julia Addison. Details of his life are entirely wanting until, from his own account in ‘The Last Days of Shelley and Byron,’ we find him in the summer of 1820 in Switzerland. While there he came across Thomas Medwin [q. v.], recently arrived from Italy, where he had resumed acquaintance with his cousin Shelley. Medwin's account of the poet induced Trelawny and a new friend, Edward Elliker Williams [q. v.], to resolve on seeking Shelley out. Williams proceeded to Italy in the spring of 1821; Trelawny, recalled to England by business (resulting apparently from the death of his father), delayed until the end of the year, when he went to Tuscany, provided with dogs, guns, and nets, for hunting in the Maremma. His description of his first meetings with Shelley and Byron is one of the most vivid pieces of writing in the language. He remained for the most part in the society of one or both until 8 July, the day on which Shelley and Williams met their tragic end in a squall off Leghorn. Trelawny was to have accompanied them in Byron's yacht; but an informality detained him in port at Leghorn, and he remained with furled sails, watching the doomed vessel through a spyglass until a sea fog enveloped her and ‘we saw nothing more of her.’
The twelvemonth ensuing is the brightest portion of Trelawny's life. Nothing could surpass his devotion to his dead friends and their widowed survivors; he promoted the recovery of the bodies, superintended their cremation on shore, snatched Shelley's heart from the flames, prepared the tomb in the protestant cemetery at Rome, purchased the ground, added the proverbial lines from the ‘Tempest’ to Leigh Hunt's ‘Cor Cordium,’ and crowned his services by providing Mary Shelley with funds for her journey to England.
On 23 July 1823 Trelawny put to sea from Leghorn with Byron in the Hercules, bound for Greece, to aid in the Hellenic struggle for independence. They reached Cephalonia on 3 Aug. Trelawny, dissatisfied with Byron's tardiness in taking action, crossed to the mainland, and joined the insurgent chief Odysseus, whose sister Tersitza he married as his second wife. While discharging a mission with which he had been entrusted by Colonel Leicester Fitzgerald Charles Stanhope (afterwards Earl of Harrington) [q. v.], who speaks of him with the warmest commendation, he heard of Byron's fatal illness, and hurried to Missolonghi, but arrived too late. His gratification of his curiosity as to the cause of Byron's lameness, and his publication of particulars afterwards admitted to be inaccurate, exposed him to great and deserved censure; his letters to Stanhope on Byron's death, printed in Stanhope's ‘Greece’ in 1823 and 1824, are nevertheless couched in fitting language, and should be read in justice both to himself and Byron. ‘With all his faults,’ he says, ‘I loved him truly; if it gave me pain in witnessing his frailties, he only wanted a little excitement to awaken and put forth virtues that redeemed them all.’ Returning to the camp of Odysseus, Trelawny inevitably became mixed up in the intrigues and dissensions of the Greek chieftains. Odysseus, just before his own arrest and murder, entrusted him with the defence of his stronghold on Mount Parnassus, where, in May 1825, he was shot by two Englishmen—Thomas Fenton, a deliberate assassin, and Whitcombe, his dupe. Fenton was killed on the spot. Trelawny, though in a desperate condition and suffering intense pain, magnanimously spared the life of Whitcombe. After long and cruel suffering, he was at length able to depart for Cephalonia, bringing, as would appear, his Greek bride with him; his daughter Zella was born about June 1826. The frequent mention of this child in his subsequent correspondence with Mrs. Shelley, and even later, refutes the story of her death and the treatment of her remains told by J. G. Cooke (Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, p. 265). ‘She has a soul of fire,’ he says in 1831. She eventually married happily.
In April 1826 Trelawny was at Zante, whence he addressed a letter to the ‘Examiner,’ describing the fall of Missolonghi. He remained in the Ionian Islands until the end of 1827, detained, as he informs Mrs. Shelley, by a succession of fevers and a ‘villainous lawsuit.’ In 1828 he was in England, partly, as it would seem, in Cornwall with his mother. In 1829 he lived in Italy with Charles Armitage Brown [q. v.] and his infant daughter. He wished at this time to write the life of Shelley, and solicited Mrs. Shelley's assistance, but, besides Trelawny's special disqualifications and Mrs. Shelley's aversion to publicity, compliance with his request would have deprived her of the allowance from Sir Timothy Shelley. Disappointed and annoyed, Trelawny turned to another biography which none could prohibit—his own. In March 1829 he tells Mrs. Shelley, ‘I am actually writing my own life.’ It was seen as it progressed, he adds, by Armitage Brown and Landor, the latter of whom had already introduced him and his Greek wife into one of his ‘Imaginary Conversations.’ By August 1830 the first part, forming the book now known as ‘The Adventures of a Younger Son,’ was nearly completed. The manuscript reached Mary Shelley in December, and, notwithstanding the perusal of Brown and Landor, the revision of diction and orthography gave her enough to do. Trelawny's spelling, though by no means so bad as stated by Fanny Kemble, was at no time of his life immaculate. Mrs. Shelley also had to persuade him to omit some passages deemed objectionable on the ground of coarseness, in which, backed by Horace Smith, she ultimately succeeded. The book was published anonymously in the autumn of 1831, and, although the first edition did not bring back the 400l. which Colburn had given for the copyright, it speedily reappeared in a cheaper form, and took rank as a recognised classic (London, 3 vols. 8vo, and in 1 vol. among Bentley's Standard Novels, 1835; New York, 2 vols. 12mo, 1834; German translation, Leipzig, 1832). The American and German issues were followed by a translation by or for Dumas (‘Le Cadet de Famille’) in his journal ‘Le Mousquetaire.’ The book was to have been called ‘A Man's Life,’ and owes its actual and more attractive title to the publisher.
Trelawny came to England in 1832. In January 1833 he went to America, and remained there until June 1835. Among his achievements there were his holding Fanny Kemble in his arms to give her a view of Niagara; his swimming across the river between the rapid and the falls; and his buying the freedom of a man slave, a circumstance which remained unknown until after his death. After 1837 the principal authority for his life ceases with the discontinuance of his affectionate correspondence with Mary Shelley. He had half made her an offer of marriage in 1831; her refusal made no difference in their friendship, but she seems to have bitterly felt his strictures on the omission of portions of ‘Queen Mab’ from her edition of her husband's works.
Trelawny was at this time a conspicuous figure in English society. Handsome and picturesque, of great physical strength with the prestige of known achievements and the fascination of dimly conjectured mystery, nor wholly indisposed to maintain his reputation for romance by romancing, he combined all the qualifications of a London lion. His closest connection appears to have been with Leader, the popular member for Westminster; but Brougham, Landor, Bulwer, D'Orsay, Mrs. Norton, and Mrs. Jameson were also among his intimate friends; nor do any of them appear to have become estranged from him. A few years later, however, an unfortunate affair which resulted in his contracting a third marriage induced him to lead a more secluded life than heretofore. A letter from Seymour Kirkup generously declining an unsolicited offer from Trelawny to advance him money shows that in 1846 Trelawny was living at Putney, and was thinking of buying landed property. It must have been very shortly afterwards that he settled at Usk in Monmouthshire (at first in a house now called Twyn Bell, and afterwards at Cefn Ila), where he abode for ten or eleven years, a great benefactor to the neighbourhood by his judicious employment of labour, and only relinquishing his own property when by building, planting, and good husbandry he had greatly increased its value. Unfortunately his domestic life was irregular, and resulted in a hopeless breach with his wife, who appears to have been a lady of distinguished qualities, in addition to her special claim upon him. He was nevertheless attentive to his children, sending his two sons to Germany for the sake of a thoroughly practical education, but he outlived them both. His youngest daughter Lætitia married in 1882 Lieutenant-colonel Call, R.E.
While at Usk, probably under the impulse of an invitation from Sir Percy Shelley to talk over old times prior to the appearance of Hogg's biography of Shelley (which Trelawny read for the first time nearly twenty years after its publication), he began to write the second part of his autobiography, which appeared in 1858 under the title of ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron,’ subsequently altered to ‘Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author’ (London, 8vo; Boston, 1858, 8vo; with the altered title and other changes, London, 1878, 8vo, and 1887, 8vo). By this book Trelawny has indissolubly linked his name with those of the two great poets he has depicted. In his portrait of Shelley we have the real Shelley as we have it nowhere else; his portrait of Byron is not only less agreeable, but less truthful, but the fault is not so much in the artist as in the sitter, who pays the penalty of his incessant pose and perpetual mystification, ‘le fanfaron des vices qu'il n'avait pas.’ When Byron is natural, Trelawny is appreciative. His account of his own adventures in Greece is simple and modest.
Trelawny lived in London for the next few years. After a while he bought a town house, No. 7 Pelham Crescent, Brompton, and a country house at Sompting, near Worthing. In the country he devoted himself zealously to horticulture. ‘Hard work in the open air,’ he declared, ‘is the best physician. A man who has once learned to handle his tools loses the relish for play.’ He was abstemious in food and drink, and never wore a great coat. He rejoiced especially in his crops of figs, equal, he averred, to the growths of Italy. The younger generation sought the acquaintance of a man who had consorted with Shelley and Byron, and who, as the years passed on with little apparent effect on his robust constitution, came little by little to be the sole distinguished survivor of the Byronic age. Miss Mathilde Blind, Mr. W. M. Rossetti and Mr. Edgcumbe have left accurate records of his brilliant, original, riveting, but most censorious conversation. In the main it was authentic as well as picturesque, but sometimes the tendency to romance crept in, not only as regarded his own exploits, but less excusably as regarded the deeds or frailties of others. Some of his statements are demonstrably incorrect, others highly improbable. A certain peevishness also grew upon him, painfully evinced in the second edition of his records of Shelley and Byron, enriched with new documents of importance, but where every alteration in the text is a change for the worse. It missed, in fact, the judicious counsel of Mrs. Trelawny, who had happily influenced the first edition. In loyalty to Shelley, however, he never wavered, and he showed freshness of mind by becoming an admiring reader of Blake and a student of Darwin. At length he took to his bed, and died at Sompting on 13 Aug. 1881 of mere natural decay. In accordance with his wishes, Miss Taylor, who had faithfully watched over his closing years, transported his remains to Gotha, where they were cremated and removed to Rome for interment in the grave which he had long ago prepared for himself by the side of Shelley's.
Trelawny's character presents many points of contact with Landor's. His main fault was an intense wilfulness, the exaggeration of a haughty spirit of independence, which rendered him careless of the rights and claims of others, and sometimes betrayed him into absolute brutality. He himself owned that his worst enemy was his determination ‘to get what he wanted, if he had to go through heaven and hell for it.’ His disposition to romance was a minor failing, which has prejudiced him more in public opinion than it need have done; his embellishments rested upon a genuine basis of achievement. His want of regular education was probably of service to him as a writer, enabling him to set forth with forcible plainness of speech what more cultured persons would have disguised in polished verbiage. He is graphic in his descriptions both of men and things; all his characters, real or fictitious, actually live.
Trelawny sat to Sir John Millais for the old seaman in ‘the North-West Passage,’ and this grand head, now hung in the Tate Gallery, though disapproved by himself, is a striking record of his appearance. Seymour Kirkup's portrait, engraved in the ‘Field’ for August 1881, is a good representation of him at an earlier period of life, and a fine photograph taken in old age is engraved as the frontispiece to Mr. Edward Garnett's edition of ‘The Adventures of a Younger Son.’ The portraits by Severn and D'Orsay (1886) are generally condemned. Mrs. Shelley speaks of his Moorish appearance—‘Oriental, not Asiatic’—and the remark is corroborated by Byron's having marked him out to enact Othello.[The principal authorities for Trelawny's life are his own writings, with an ample margin for scepticism in the case of ‘The Adventures of a Younger Son,’ and after these his letters to Mary Shelley in the biography of her by Mrs. Julian Marshall. Useful abridged lives have been written by Mr. Richard Edgcumbe (‘Edward Trelawny: a Biographical Sketch,’ Plymouth, 1882, 8vo) and by Mr. Edward Garnett, the latter prefixed to the edition of ‘The Younger Son’ (Adventure Series), 1890. All the biographers of Shelley and Byron in their latter days have noticed him, and graphic records of his conversation have been preserved by W. M. Rossetti in the Athenæum for 1882, R. Edgcumbe in Temple Bar, May 1890, and Miss Mathilde Blind in the Whitehall Review of 10 Jan. 1880. See also Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis and Boase's Collectanea Cornubiensia, col. 1036 (with details of Trelawny's will); Athenæum, 3 Aug. 1878, 20 Aug. 1881 (obit. notice), and 21 Aug. 1897 (details of the household at Usk); Sharp's Life and Letters of Joseph Severn; Millingen's Memoirs of the Affairs of Greece, pp. 150–53; Fanny Kemble's Records of a Girlhood and Last Records; and R. Garnett's ‘Shelley's Last Days’ in the Fortnightly Review for July 1878. Lines to the memory of Trelawny by Mr. Swinburne appeared in the Athenæum for 27 Aug. 1881, and were reprinted separately. The ‘Songs of the Springtides’ had been dedicated to Trelawny in the previous year.]