Close to the Bone

The Oxford Book of Parodies by John Gross

Books Literature
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? 

Poets have always attracted the parodist and they account for a fair number of the works included in this collection. Wordsworth, partly because of his vast and uneven output, has long been a favourite target. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most effective attempts at capturing his manner and his weaknesses was written by Catherine Maria Fanshawe (1765-1834), a literary lady five years senior than Wordsworth. Her Wordsworthian lines, Gross comments, have an idyllic quality, which is “somehow all the more idyllic for being comic”. The parody of Byron which he includes is taken from Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical novel Nightmare Abbey and draws from Gross the comment that the lines are “almost too good for Peacock’s parodic purpose”: an interesting hazard of which few satirists are in danger. Peacock’s brilliance is evident also in another extract from the same novel, in which Coleridge appears as “Mr Flosky”, a middle-aged philosopher whose table talk consists of impenetrable torrents of metaphysical verbiage, unsparingly parodied.

If Peacock is thought to be rather cruelly ridiculing Coleridge in that caricature, ruthlessness can be an important part of good parody, as this collection illustrates. One danger with a really successful piece of mockery is that of sailing too close to the wind. This parodist’s mishap happened to the once-popular novelist Robert Hichens when he wrote The Green Carnation. This was a clever lampoon of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, under the names of Esme Amaranth and Lord Reggie. It contained hints, by no means obscure, about the two men’s private lives. It was published in 1894 and ran into trouble only few months later when the legal proceedings that were to destroy Wilde began. The book had to be withdrawn, caricature having for once moved too close to the truth.