Edward John Trelawny Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Edward John Trelawny 1792-1881

British memoirist.

Trelawny's reputation as an author has long depended on his intimate knowledge of his more famous friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon (Lord) Byron in particular, and until the middle of this century he was considered a valuable heir, witness, and interpreter of the Romantic tradition. But the discovery that his “memoirs” were frequently threaded with fantasy and falsification tainted Trelawny's image. More recently, though, literary scholars have taken a renewed interest in Trelawny, not as a historical source but as a masterful storyteller who attempted to embody the Romantic ideal in both his life and his work.

Biographical Information

Trelawny was the second of six children of Charles and Maria Trelawny. He grew up in London, although he would later consider Cornwall his “native country.” Little is known of Trelawny's early life except that his father, a lieutenant colonel in the British army, was an authoritarian figure, and that the younger Trelawny attended a boarding school for two years but was expelled for his unruliness. At the age of twelve he was enlisted in the Royal Navy, in whose service he remained until he was nineteen. This period in his life formed the basis of his attempt to embody the hero of Byron's Corsair (1814) and provided material for his increasingly embroidered stories. As a midshipman, he traveled throughout southeast Asia and was wounded in the British invasion of Mauritius in 1810. Soon after his return to London in 1812 he married Caroline Addison; they had two daughters by 1816 when Caroline abruptly left the marriage. Trelawny, already striving to cultivate a Romantic persona, challenged her lover to a duel; instead, in 1819, he faced the public humiliation and family scorn engendered by a divorce.

By this time Trelawny had read much of Byron's work as well as Shelley's poetry; both figures expressed the Romantic spirit by which Trelawny defined himself. Shelley in particular was to become his hero. Through a mutual acquaintance, Trelawny was invited to Pisa in 1822 to meet the poets and help them design sailboats. With his exotic presence, he was immediately accepted into the literary circle at Pisa, and the relationships he formed with these two men dominated the remaining six decades of his life. In the summer of 1822, Trelawny saw Shelley off in his new boat, the Don Juan, and ten days later identified Shelley's body on a beach. It was Trelawny who famously cremated Shelley and rescued his heart from the flames. He then accompanied Byron to Greece, where the struggle for independence provided an ample stage for Trelawny's self-styled heroic adventures. He had joined a small group of revolutionaries when he received word of Byron's death in 1824. After arranging for funeral rites and sorting through Byron's papers (including the unfinished poem Don Juan), Trelawny returned to the Greek liberation forces and married the thirteen-year-old half-sister of its leader. Seriously wounded, Trelawny left Greece for England in 1828. There, he renewed his relationship with Mary Shelley and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Mary Shelley facilitated the publication of Trelawny's Adventures of a Younger Son (1831), which purported to chronicle his early life. This work brought Trelawny a measure of success, and in the following years he traveled to North America and then settled into a more conventional existence by entering political life and marrying Augusta Goring in 1841.

Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, published in 1858, provoked more controversy than Trelawny's first memoir, but enjoyed an equal measure of success. This work established him as a living inheritor of the Romantic tradition, and for the following twenty years Trelawny commanded the attention of the literary world with his reminiscences of the two poets. Trelawny died after a fall in 1881, and, according to his wishes, he was buried next to Shelley's ashes in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Major Works

Trelawny wrote two major memoirs during his lifetime, as well as numerous letters, all of which are interesting to scholars not only for their representation of a deliberately-nurtured Romantic figure, but also for their intimate portraits of Shelley and Byron. Adventures of a Younger Son was written in the years after Shelley's death, edited by Mary Shelley, and published anonymously in 1831. Its scathing account of Trelawny's childhood at home and at school contrasted sharply with the book's later sections, which describe a fantastic narrative of adventures on the high seas and encounters in the jungles of Asia with wild animals and savage humans—savage, that is, except for the young girl who became his wife and then died after being attacked by sharks and poisoned. The memoir departs from actual events beginning with Trelawny's desertion from the Navy and his joining the crew of a pirate named de Ruyter. The animated and seemingly unmediated tone of the narrator in this piece also characterizes Trelawny's later works: the short story “Sahib Tulwar” (“Master of the Sword”) in 1839, and Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, written thirty years after their deaths and published in 1858. The latter work, structured primarily as dialogue and commentary, offers glimpses into the private lives of these two legendary figures through Trelawny's eyes. Later revised as Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author (1878), the memoir reflects Trelawny's understanding of himself as the confidante of the two poets and as the embodiment of their Romantic ideals.

It is in the Letters of Edward John Trelawny (1910) that the characteristic amalgamation of real and fictional elements in his writing becomes clear: William St. Clair describes them as “extremely good letters … and not the least of their virtues is that they are all unconscious of any eyes but their receivers.” These documents, written over the course of his life, reveal Trelawny's fascination with and admiration of Shelley, his shifting opinions of Mary Shelley, Byron, and others, and his passionate involvements with women, politics, and writing. Unpolished and frequently ungrammatical, they are addressed to such correspondents as Claire Clairmont, William Rossetti, and Mary Shelley, and are considered to be the most candid expressions of Trelawny's memories and interests.

Critical Reception

During his own lifetime, Trelawny was hailed as a living incarnation of the Corsair. As many critics have remarked, Trelawny's success as popular chronicler of the lives of Shelley and Byron was accomplished in part by simply outliving both of these figures as well as others who might have contradicted his version of events. Rossetti engaged in an ongoing conversation with Trelawny as a source of information about the poets, and encouraged him to publish the Records. The popularity of Trelawny's works with the Victorian readership spanned fifty years, and his memoirs were translated into several languages. By the time of his death in 1881, Trelawny enjoyed a reputation as one of the last adventurers remaining in the Empire; a printed eulogy in Temple Bar, written by Henry E. Ward, described him as one of the “old human links that connect the present day with the mighty infancy and youth of this century.”

The Trelawny legend continued to fascinate students of the Romantic movement, but in this century research into his lineage and early life revealed that the adventures on which his reputation was founded were largely fictitious. Further inquiry into the many recorded versions of stories he told of his more famous friends—in transcribed conversations, letters, and the memoirs—corroborated the growing view that Trelawny's perspective was frequently distorted by self-aggrandizement, as well as by his persistent vision of himself as the true heir of Shelley's Romantic ideal. Trelawny's falsifications and adumbrations have been exhaustively traced, and it is only recently that critics have begun to evaluate his writing independently of the truth of its depictions. Most scholars note the vivacity of his images, the detailed quality of his descriptions, and his storytelling ability. His memoirs are characterized as driven by powerful narrative skills that are only complicated, rather than undermined, by the revelation that fact and fantasy are blended in the telling. Although Trelawny is no longer considered a reliable resource for biographical information, his reputation is nonetheless emerging rejuvenated, as his work has been scrutinized not for its accuracy but its literary qualities.