The Truth as Masquerade

In the autumn of 1821, Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881) left Geneva for Italy, where in the following January he briefly became part of the little circle of English expatriates at Pisa: Lord Byron, Shelley and his wife, Mary, Shelley’s cousin Thomas Medwin, Edward Williams (who, like Medwin, had been a British army officer in India), and Williams’s partner, Jane. Trelawny himself was thirty, the same age as Shelley, but four years younger than Byron. He later claimed that it had been his discovery of Shelley’s poetry, quite as much as a desire to meet Byron, that induced him to act on the Williamses’ suggestion that he join them in Pisa. Like a good deal else in Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878), this was almost certainly not true.* Byron, rather than the comparatively obscure Shelley, was the real magnet. Trelawny was attracted to him, moreover, for reasons more complicated and personal than simply the great international celebrity at this time of the self-exiled author of Childe Harold, Don Juan, and the various Eastern tales.

In the eyes not only of his upper-class Cornish family, but of the school from which he had been expelled, as well as the British navy, which had found him so intractable that it discharged him after a few years without a commission, not to mention his wife (the first of three), who had humiliatingly left him for another and much older man, Trelawny in 1822 was an almost unmitigated failure. He eked out his existence on the continent because the slender paternal allowance remitted to this unsatisfactory younger son was insufficient to support him in England. For assets, he appeared to possess only a commanding (and intensely masculine) physical appearance, an iron constitution to match, and the ability, frequently exercised, to annihilate with his gun any game bird or animal from a considerable distance.

But there were hidden depths in Trelawny. He had an extraordinary imagination, focused for the most part upon himself. It had been fueled and extended, furthermore, between his ignominious departure from the navy in 1812 and his arrival at Pisa, by rapturous immersion in the earlier “romantic” works of Byron. Whether or not it was true that he habitually slept with a copy of Byron’s verse tale The Corsair under his pillow, it was certainly the case that he came to model himself upon the hero of this and similar Byronic fictions: dark, violent, a man of strange adventures and hairbreadth escapes in little-known parts of the world. By 1822, he was well embarked on the creation of a whole spurious past history for himself, one in which he had not only been a pirate, like Byron’s Conrad, but had stabbed tigers to death, rescued beautiful Arab maidens, and savagely avenged himself on anyone so foolhardy as to cross him. (He was later to incorporate these detailed fabrications in his 1831 autobiography, Adventures of a Younger Son, by which time it is even possible that he believed them…

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