I have been fascinated by the 19th century figure Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881) since the random discovery of a copy of Adventures of A Younger Son (1830) at a Kirkby Lonsdale book fair in the mid 90s. Subsequently I have acquired and read almost every published biography available. There are seven plus his own books, diaries and letters.
Now I aim to tell you about them on an occasional schedule, with intent to follow chronological order of publication.
Without rehashing the biography itself, a summary of Trelawny’s historical position can be seen in the subtitles of the biographies: The Friend of Shelley; Incurable Romancer; A Man’s Life; Lord Byron’s Jackal; Trelawny’s World.
Although Trelawny had been written about by various biographers of both Shelleys and Byron, the first book devoted to him came within months of his death, from Richard Edgcumbe in 1882.
It is a slim volume of under 36 pages which necessarily lacks the depth of later books. On the other hand Edgcumbe actually knew Trelawny in person. His eulogistic preface is clearly heartfelt.
Alas! The dauntless Cornishman who in his youth swept the seas with De Witt, who in his prime fought with Byron for the independence of Greece, and who in old age commanded the sympathy and respect of all true lovers of romance, has passed away. Never more shall we gather round the old man’s chair, and approach through him the mighty Dead.
Therein lies the problem. Edgcumbe is credulous, his Trelawny was his means of vicarious encounter with poets. There is no questioning of the older rascal’s tallest tales. (It looks to me if Richard Garnett writing for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittanica c.1898-1900 may have been the earliest to challenge Trelawny’s stories with active research.)
So Trelawny’s naval experience is taken as read with extensive quotes of the Adventures. Edgcumbe is rapturous on his hero’s poetic prose, gushing even. Moreso he adulates Trelawny’s honesty and judgement of the great poets though Edgcumbe’s interpretation of this differs from my own.
Edgcumbe relies on his own experience with Trelawny and the latter’s books too heavily, resulting in the occasional error such as a wrong and vague birthdate. He cites correspondence of Mary Shelley however which confirms the dual nature of Trelawny as exaggerating his own role whilst equally positioning himself standing in the wings. This, which some later writers see as fundamental grounds to distrust Trelawny, is unquestioned.
Ultimately A Biographical Sketch is weakened by brevity, and its absence of anything from the last 55 years of Trelawny’s life. One of his great loves, Claire Clairmont, gets no mention whatsoever yet Trelawny’s correspondence suggests he must have talked of her.
Edgcumbe’s love though occasionally engages and enlightens his subject in thought provoking ways. For the newcomer to Trelawny, don’t start here, but for the rest of us, a nice addition.
(The sketch portrait above is by Sir Edwin Landseer possibly after Thomas Phillips discredited portrait of Trelawny in Albanian dress. It bears no resemblance to the Trelawny that Richard Edgcumbe knew.)