Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Parody Party

Parody may be intended to make you laugh at the thing being parodied, but it can also introduce you to and get you interested in the original object of ridicule. That would be parody as hommage, an act of appreciation as well as, or rather than derision.  In 1936, the anthologist Leonard Russell (utterly forgotten today) published a collection of fervent acts of homage to notable English authors of the day, written by other notable English authors, called Parody Party. The parodies were all intended to be about a weekend country-house party, which establishes the class of reader the book was intended for (moneyed, literary, leisured, cultured, just a bit self-satisfied). They are sheer heaven to read. It doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read any of the original objects of parody, because these splendid and wicked little pieces are just as informative about the parodied as about the parodist.

I first came across Parody Party when I read J B Morton’s offering in the style of John Buchan, ‘The Queen of Minikoi’. Morton is hardly remembered now, but back in 1936 he was a noted newspaper essayist and humourist using the ‘Beachcomber’ brand name. ‘The Queen of Minikoi’ is so comprehensively Buchanesque, and ticked every box of Buchan tricks so conscientiously, that I was rocking with laughter. Maybe you need to be a Buchan fan to truly appreciate Morton’s pitch-perfect  parody, but it certainly worked for me. So, after that, I needed to read more, and bought the book. Other parodists in Parody Party include the more likely to be remembered writers Rebecca West (novelist and war commentator), Rose Macaulay (novelist, critic, poet, travel writer), E C Bentley (he wrote the first modern detective novel, Trent’s Last Case), Cyril Connolly (a large and influential cultural critic, magazine editor and party animal, also the employer of the second Mrs George Orwell), and future Poet Laureate (but then only an up-and-coming poet and architectural critic) John Betjeman. Sadly, Betjeman’s contribution is the least interesting and least funny of the lot: perhaps for so cuddly a man he could not bear to lance the vein of savagery needed for true parody to work.

My favourite parodies where I know both parodist and the parodied are Macaulay on Ernest Hemingway (quite merciless about the Hemingwayean quantities of drink consumed), and Bentley on Dorothy L Sayers (brutally unforgiving about Lord Peter Wimsey’s idiot side). I know nothing of Charles Morgan or Hugh Walpole’s fiction, but after reading Rebecca West on Morgan, and Francis Iles on Walpole, I want rather desperately to read both. From Iles’ contribution, Walpole appears to be a chronicler of ritual murder in cathedral towns, so he has to be tried out, I feel, for a proper appreciation of one of the 20th century’s most prolific writers who is now utterly unread. Charles Morgan, from West’s treatment of him, appears to specialise in self-deluding egotistical morons of love, and this too sounds like an attractive reading choice for a long train journey.

More interesting from a historical point of view is the parody by (the now totally unremembered, but also once a holder of the ‘Beachcomber’ pen) D B Wyndham Lewis (no relation at all to the much nastier Wyndham Lewis) on the speech-drafting style of prime minister Stanley Baldwin (please say you’ve heard of him?).  From this, we can deduce that Baldwin was a self-proclaimed countryman, long-winded, prosaic and lazy on the detail, so we don’t need to read any more by him. But how useful to be given a taster of his speaking style in such an economic way!

G B Stern (an excellent novelist of modern Jewish matriarchy), did a glutinous parody of a J M Barrie play in the Kailyard tradition (uber-sentimentality gone mad), where Tinkerbell appears at the end, and where the stage directions constitute 80% of the text. A Barrie play is unreadable today, whereas a Stern novel is to be treasured for all time. By now, we should be wondering about longevity in literature, and why parody has the capacity to make the parodist or victim survive.

Cyril Connolly’s take-down of Aldous Huxley really makes no sense, but perhaps that is the point: Huxley was known in this period more for his intellectualised drug habit than his fiction. The parody of Dean Inge (definitely a challenge to collectors of obscure 20th-century novelists) gave me no clues about his works except that they must be dreary and tedious. In a nice double whammy, the excellent humourist A G Macdonell did a take-down of professional Yorkshireman and middlebrow champion J B Priestley, and then was taken-down himself. However, even if you know Macdonell’s works as a baseline reference (and I only know three) this is not a successful parody, because we don’t see any joke to get. Perhaps one had to be there. But, the best ego-exploding parody in this collection, by L A Pavey (qui?), now tragically unknown, is that of W Somerset Maugham. Maugham can be a dreadful old bore a lot of the time: his memoirs are excellent for combating insomnia, and this marvellous parody of his evident ego and self-importance was so satisfying, it nearly sent me back to re-attempting his novels. I would have been more willing to go back to the books of L A Pavey, if there are any, but if you can’t enjoy more of the parodist, you can still enjoy a lot more of the parodied, while you smirk knowingly at the vistas of forgotten literary pomposity laid bare before you.

Leonard Russell (ed.) Parody Party (London: Hutchinson, 1936)

Kate is a serial browser in second-hand bookshops and podcasts weekly on books that she really, really likes, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

8 comments on “Parody Party

  1. kirstyjane
    October 8, 2012

    Fabulous piece! Thank you so much for this.

    Must contest your statement about J B Morton, though. He’s very well remembered among the right people…

  2. Hilary
    October 8, 2012

    This sounds WOOOONDERFUL! Must try and find this. Thanks so much for this review!

    Two minds with but a single thought, Comrade K – the right people do indeed know all about Beachcomber. And indeed the previous Beachcomber, D.B. W-L.

    Kate, have you ever come across Arthur Marshall’s anthologies of New Statesman competitions? Parodies were a regular feature, and there are some lovely ones in them. The only one I possess is Salome Dear – Not In The Fridge.

  3. geraniumcat
    October 8, 2012

    Must admit I spluttered a bit over your comment about JB Morton but his Buchan parody sounds an absolute must-read. I tried one of Walpole’s forays into gothic recently (Portrait of a Man with Red Hair) and hated it. It made me feel grubby, which surprised me because I remembered reading Walpole as a teenager and enjoying him.

  4. Erica
    October 8, 2012

    That sounds like Hugh Walpole’s Harmer John, that I talked about briefly at the conference in september! I’m going to have a look for a copy of Parody Party – it looks like a must-have for the special collection! http://reading19001950.wordpress.com/

  5. Pingback: Read detective stories along with us « Reading 1900-1950

  6. CFisher
    October 9, 2012

    Worth it for the cover alone. I shall order it at once. Beachcomber made me laugh as a teenager. English whimsy that disguised a steely core. Who can forget the Red Haired Dwarfs and the suffering they put Justice Cocklecarrot through? Walpole I recommend wholeheartedly. Morgan less so. On hearing of Baldwin’s death Churchill is reputed to have said “The light has gone out in that great turnip head.”

  7. Kate
    October 10, 2012

    Now this is interesting: is my ignorance about Morton/Beachcomber because my teenage reading was restricted to what the far north of Scotland could offer? Maybe Beachcomber did not find favour with the burghers of Aberdeen, whereas I was pretty well-read in A P Herbert and Macdonell by the time I left that university. I shall swot up on Morton.

  8. CFisher
    October 10, 2012

    For some reason known only to my mother we took The Daily Telegraph and for equally unknown reasons I read Peter Simple’s Way of the World. As it was of the same ilk as Beachcomber I can only assume it was from there that I moved onto Beachcomber (creator of Dr Strabismus of Utrecht, whom God preserve). Having said that my knowledge of Beachcomber did not help me in any way when studying the details of English Medieval history at Edinburgh.

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2012 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: humour and tagged .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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