Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas: A caricature that was too close for comfort
The art of parody has long occupied a pleasingly subversive place in our literature, so John Gross had a rich field to harvest here. His new and welcome anthology is well stocked with witty and diverting specimens, so various that one might well wonder: what is a parody, exactly? Usually, it is agreed to be an imitation of a writer's work or his style, with mischievous exaggerations introduced for comic effect.
There has to be an element of mockery in the imitation, and this may be affectionate or even flattering, but on occasion it can be savage and destructive. This collection contains examples of both kinds. As Gross observes in his introduction, parody seems to flourish on territory somewhere between pastiche ("a composition in another artist's manner, without satirical intent") and burlesque (which "fools around with the material of high literature and adapts it to low ends").
A great parody, one of Max Beerbohm's flawless creations for example, may well convey a subtly critical view of its model, but we treasure it chiefly because it is a joy to read. And that consideration, sensibly, has guided Gross's editorial policy in making his selection.
The book contains many gems, some of which have attained the status of classics, some by modern masters such as Craig Brown, some which come as pleasant surprises. It is entertaining to find a fragment of a supposed Greek tragedy composed in a moment of levity by that austere scholar A. E. Housman, and then to enjoy the spot-on parody of Housman's own mournful poems written by Hugh Kingsmill:
What, still alive at twenty-two
A clean upstanding chap like you?