Lord Byron’s Jackal: A Life of Edward John Trelawny by David Crane - review by Michael Waterhouse

Michael Waterhouse

One of Literature’s Greatest Liars

Lord Byron’s Jackal: A Life of Edward John Trelawny


Harper Collins 416pp £19. 99 order from our bookshop

In 1881, shortly before his death, Trelawny was visited by the eminent archivist Sir Sidney Colvin. Like others who had beaten a path to Trelawny’s door, Colvin had come to listen to a legendary raconteur. Trelawny’s tales of plucking Shelley’s heart from his funeral pyre or of discovering Byron’s clubbed feet had entertained Victorian drawing-rooms for nearly fifty years. He was a celebrity. At eighty-eight, he remained the only surviving link between late Victorians and the flamboyant world of Byronic Romanticism. As Colvin was leaving, the old man muttered: ‘Lies, lies, lies.’ Trelawny never spoke in public again.

Edward Trelawny is remembered as the author of three books: Adventures of a Younger Son, which relates his exploits as a ‘pirate’, Recollections of Byron and Shelley and Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author. Very little in them is true. During his lifetime, and for much of this century, Trelawny was regarded as a literary lion and our most reliable source of first-hand information about Byron and Shelley. It wasn’t until the 1950s that he was rumbled, by his last biographer, Anne Hill.

Trelawny maintained he was a deserter from the Royal Navy, who had taken to piracy. Neither was true. He claimed to have known Keats. They never met. Literary liars are forever fascinating, not least because their own achievements frequently obviate the need for further aggrandisement. What drove Ford Madox Ford to exaggerate his collaboration with Conrad, or De Quincey his relationship with Wordsworth?

This excellent biography is, above all, an evocation of Trelawny’s restless dissatisfaction with life as it is lived. He takes up heroes and friends alike and then, when they fail to meet his expectations, disparages them. Causes like the Greek War of Independence or constitu­tional reform in England offer brief fulfilment before their interest pales. T S Eliot might have conjectured that Trelawny lacked an ‘objective correlative’.

Yet there is a sense in which the world Trelawny writes about is not invented. It is true to the genius of Romanticism. His early life had been one of dullness and failure, so he recast himself as an adventurer and his tales of piracy were utterly compelling. He burst in on Byron and the Shelleys at Pisa, and although Byron seems to have realised that Trelawny couldn’t tell the truth to save his life, he and the rest of the circle welcomed him as the embodiment of Byron’s Corsair. When disillusionment set in, it was Trelawny’s. Byron was not sufficiently Byronic.

In Greece, Trelawny swiftly adopted another hero, the chieftain Odysseus. Together, they intended to make a large cave high up on Mount Parnassus into ‘the most beautiful fortress in the world’. Down below, Greece was suffering a war of unimaginable savagery, but in the cave Trelawny could live out his romantic fantasy. The Greek cause was deeply factionalised and, at a time when the fortress had strategic importance, a plot was hatched to kill Odysseus and, if necessary, Trelawny. The assassin, J W Fenton, was already within Odysseus’s camp, but the circus of war moved on and the urgency of the plan dwindled. What then happened is hard to explain, other than as a moment of intensity of the kind Meursault experienced in L’Etranger. A young man called Whitcombe arrives at the cave. He is nineteen, neurotic, and as much a product of Romantic literature as Trelawny. Within four days, he has joined Fenton in trying to murder Trelawny. Fenton’s gun ostensibly fails and Whitcombe feels impelled to fire. One bullet shatters Trelawny’s arm. Another lodges in his mouth. Miraculously, Trelawny survives. Whitcombe is chained to a recess of the cave and told that if Trelawny dies, he will be roasted alive.

This is thriller wrapped in biography and Crane is at his dramatic best when intercutting events surrounding the attempted murder. Suddenly we are aware that this is not Byronic conceit but substantiated history. Trelawny has become the Byronic hero de facto and is no longer the actor, the jackal picking up crumbs of conferred fame from Byron’s table.

It comes as a shock at the end of this book to realise that the important scenes of Trelawny’s life occupied only three and a half years, from his meeting Byron in 1822 to his escape from the cave in 1825. They became the material of his stardom. As with any good act, he refined the tale over the half century he dined out on it, gradually altering his relationship with Byron until it was he, Trelawny, who occupied centre stage in the Greek campaign. Whilst he undoubtedly had the bravado to outface his critics, his good fortune was to outlive any who might quarrel with his versions of events.

Shortages of documentary information create their own imbalances in biography, but David Crane appears to have got this about right. He has done a fine job of disinterring fact from fiction and has made comprehensible what was a life of contradiction and posture, of loyal affection and cruel betrayal, of deceit and courage. Apart from the excitements of the narrative, it also conveys a sense of the author’s personal commitment. Crane has clearly visited and been moved by the cave in Parnassus. He has walked the killing fields of the hideous massacres. His feel is sure for that kind of nihilistic, uncompromising romanticism that appears to combine brutality and lofty ideals. Perhaps, in that long-gone time, he would have been a philhellene himself.

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