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Lord Byron's Jackal.

David Crane Lord Byron's Jackal. HarperCollins UK, 398 pages, 19.99 [pounds sterling]

"Byron asked me to preserve the skull for him; but remembering that he had formerly used one as a drinking cup, I was determined that Shelley's should not be so profaned" This agreeably ghoulish detail of Shelley's cremation in July 1822 comes down to us by way of Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881), whose concern for the dignity of the poet's remains did not deter him from plucking out the famously flame-proof heart, and who parlayed his brief friendships with the two bards into one of the oddest, most unlikely careers in English literature.

Trelawny had penetrated the Pisan Circle just six months earlier. Swarthy, raffish, enigmatic, and brimming with piquant anecdotes of his own piracy, he seemed to the suggestible nomads the very incarnation of Byron's Corsair. After Shelley's death, Trelawny accompanied Byron to war-torn Greece, where the latter promptly expired as well. Byron's immense celebrity deprived Trelawny of the chance to burn him too, but by hustling to Missolonghi he did manage to paw over the corpse and marvel at Byron's "feet of a sylvan satyr" as Trelawny put it. He was, in short, a sort of undertaker to the later Romantics.

It seems almost too perfect that this climber of poets next ascended Parnassus. There Trelawny spent months in a cave, abetting the klephts and marrying the barely pubescent daughter of a local warlord named--what else? -- Odysseus. Forced to give up his troglodyte habits after being shot by a deranged fellow Philhellene who modelled himself on Thomas Hope's antihero Anastasius, Trelawny returned to Britain but soon drifted to Florence. Here he enlisted Walter Savage Landor to help him write the first volume of his memoirs, Adventures of a Younger Son, wherein Trelawny swaggeringly recounted, inter alia, his stint as an Asian buccaneer and the death by shark attack of his original child-bride, Zela. Two further volumes followed, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron and (midwifed by William Michael Rossetti) Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, in which he sniped at Byron and sanctified Shelley. Lionized by the Victorians as the last relic of his mighty generation--a "rich-memoried veteran," in Sir Sidney Colvin's words--Trelawny lingered, like Landor, forever.

Thus ran the official version. One astonishing thing about Trelawny's story is that some of it is true; another is that, until recently, most were hoodwinked into believing all of it to be so. Only in 1977 did a biographer, William St. Clair, unravel Trelawny's elaborate web of bunk and braggadocio. As it turns out, at the time he claimed to have been friskily swashbuckling in the Orient, he was in fact being cuckolded in England and undergoing an ignominious divorce. Taking refuge from his misery in Byron's poems, he styled himself after them and set out in pursuit of their author; disenchanted with Byron's person, he transferred his adulation to Shelley. Much of what Trelawny wrote and said about the "irascible tribe of songsters" as he dubbed them, is broadly veracious yet suspect and shifting in its details. Was Byron's left foot clubbed, his right, or both? Was that a copy of Sophocles in the drowned Shelley's pocket, or rather one of Aeschylus? Over such fine points Trelawny dithered, endlessly respinning his yarns for each rapt Victorian listener.

David Crane's biography is commendable for its tart irony, crisp prose, and chilling accounts of the Greek War of Independence and the tragically quixotic Philhellene movement. His book is chiefly engrossing, however, as a Romantic case study not just of life imitating art, but of each chasing the other's tail until they blur into a Wildean knot. Trelawny first poses as a Corsair rogue then actually becomes one, only to run afoul of Anastasius. (That he never met Frankenstein is surprising.) In his memoirs he bites the Byronic hand that penned him, meanwhile stoking the embers of Shelley's pyre into a cultish blaze over which he apostolically presides and lovingly simmers his own fame; in the ultimate groupie coup, he even gets himself buried next to Shelley in Rome. Trelawny belongs to a venerable line of frauds, liars, and scoundrels that includes Richard Savage, George Psalmanazar, Baron Corvo, and Edmund Backhouse (whose middle name was Trelawny--a tantalizing coincidence). Finally, though, he is a singular invention, his own patchwork monstrosity.

Ben Downing is managing editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Downing, Ben
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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