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Literally Ridiculous: Great Parodies by Famous Literary Authors

Clive Manley By Clive Manley Published on August 31, 2017

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This article was updated on September 8, 2017

The genre of parody in literature has, in recent times, been sadly consigned to low brow pun-based books such as Barry Trotter or The Da Vinci Cod. However, this hasn’t always been the case, indeed some of the best and funniest parodies have come from authors acclaimed as “serious” writers. There can be a tendency to only see great authors in the terms of serious and solemn discussions of literature found in classrooms and university lecture halls, but many of the most lauded authors throughout history were also excellent humorists, and accordingly some of them have produced great works of parody. So, we’re here to take a look at just a few authors whose highly regarded reputation may have overshadowed their serious business of literary mockery.

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Image from ITV's 1981 adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Our first author is Evelyn Waugh who is best remembered today for his novel Brideshead Revisited. Dreamy and nostalgic, this novel of British aristocratic life typically spawns discussions centred on the book’s exploration of religion and Catholicism, and its portrayal of homosexuality. What is often missing from these discussions is Waugh’s humour. It is true Brideshead Revisited is part of his later work, written at a time when Waugh placed less emphasis on humour. However, satire was an integral part of his writing throughout his life, and indeed his early work was highly acclaimed specifically for its incisive wit and scathing insights. His novels Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies were adored for their heartily snide portrayal of fashionable society in the 1920s. As time has gone on, his light hearted novels have fallen from fame to be replaced by those works considered to be serious in the proper sense. This sadly misses out on a vital aspect of Waugh and his writing, a his friend, Nancy Mitford once remarked "What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything.” 

Waugh was at his parodic peak in his 1938 novel Scoop, in which he lampooned the world of journalism and journalistic writing with what Christopher Hitchens termed “pitiless realism.” Waugh had worked as a war correspondent, reporting on Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) in 1935. He took a fairly low view of the profession and urged anyone who wished to write a novel to leave journalism as soon as possible. Yet it was from this experience that he came to write his great comedic novel.

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Scoop follows the naive and unassuming William Boot, who has been diligently working away at his bi-weekly half column on nature for a national paper called The Daily Beast. In a moment of mistaken identity he is sent to the heart of Africa to cover a “very promising little war” in the fictional country of Ishmaelia. There, the only conflict he finds is between the preposterously numerous journalists, each battling it out to be the one to actually land a piece of news.

Throughout the book Waugh derisively parodies the profession’s seeming disregard for fact or substance in favour a constant stream of “breaking news.” His slew of reporters, with names like Corker, Shumble, Whelper, and Pigge show their journalistic integrity with such quotes as,

News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything
wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news. Of course there’s colour. Colour is just a lot of bull’s-eyes about nothing. It’s easy to write and easy to read, but it costs too much in cabling, so we have to go slow on that…

Waugh leaves no level of the newspaper industry unscorned, from the lowly Boot, whose cosy and florid nature column is summed up in the single sentence: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole,” to the imperious head of the newspaper, Lord Copper, who famously refuses to be contradicted, resulting in the famous gently corrective phrase “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” The satire of Waugh’s novel has endured the test of time, withstanding huge changes in the nature of journalism and reporting. In these days heralded by the cries of “fake news!” Waugh’s wit remains. When Boot anxiously voices his concern about all the journalists sending different stories, Corker replies, “It gives them a choice. They all have different policies, so of course, they have to give different news.” Waugh, it seems, remains as incisive as ever, and his parody continues to cut close to the core.

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Serious portrait of serious author, Mark Twain

Our next author has been credited with writing “The Great American Novel.” Twain’s name his name is typically treated with the deference and respect that such an accolade entails.That he was a humorist has not been forgotten, but his wit is too often relegated to lists of quips or books of quotations. In reality, Twain’s humorous writing had a much farther reach, playing a significant part in most of his work. While we may treat his work with great respect now, Twain himself had a much more flippant approach to writing. It can be seen most clearly in those works he produced while writing himself out of financial trouble. These works, designed to appeal to the masses and so sell, were opportunities for Twain to have fun. He liberally lampooned the popular literature, appealing to its audience while mocking its content.

In the 1890s, noticeably about the time Twain filed for bankruptcy, he produced several sequels to his lauded novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For these sequels to the Great American Novel, Twain simply sends his three main characters, Tom, Huck, and Jim, to muddle around in whichever genre du jour will generate audience interest and money. Their bumbling and ridiculous approach to otherwise serious genre tropes makes what might otherwise be a simple cash grab into a comic treasure trove. In the first of these, Tom Sawyer Abroad Twain takes to parodying the genre of adventure fiction, and more specifically, the work of Jules Verne. The story follows the trio as they set out on a journey in a futuristic hot air balloon. They are hoping to reach England but instead find themselves in Africa where they have a series of adventures involving lions, robbers and the Sphinx. Twain undercuts the grandeur of the genre with Huck’s mundane narration,

And it got lonesomer and lonesomer. There was the big sky up there, empty and awful deep; and the ocean down there without a thing on it but just the waves.

Having dragged his unsuspecting characters through the genre of adventure, in the next installment Twain set his sights on the then up-and-coming genre of detective fiction in Tom Sawyer, Detective. Twain sets up the motivation for story in Huck’s opening narration,

It was always nuts for Tom Sawyer—a mystery was. If you’d lay out a mystery and a pie before me and him, you wouldn’t have to say take your choice; it was a thing that would regulate itself. Because in my nature I have always run to pie, whilst in his nature he has always run to mystery. People are made different. And it is the best way.

From here, the story dives into a madcap adventure as the trio gets caught up in a diamond robbery, interrupt a trial, and encounter a ghost. Twain has an incredible skill for the burlesque and theses stories feel like an opportunity to have a go at whole host of different genres, and to cast them in the silliest possible light. That they are the sequels to such esteemed works makes them even more deliciously ironic, as Twain shows as much disregard for his own creations as he does for others’.

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Our final author, P.G. Wodehouse, may seem like a strange choice for this list as he certainly well remembered as a humorist, indeed he is frequently credited as being the greatest humorist of the 20th century. However, as beloved as he is for the Jeeves and Wooster stories, there are many forgotten plums of Wodehouse’s prolific career. Perhaps one of the best, even by Wodehouse’s own reckoning, is his short story “Honeysuckle Cottage,” which can be found in the collection Meet Mr. Mulliner. This short story is a masterclass in parodic writing, taking on the genre tropes of both hard-boiled detective fiction, and syrupy romantic fiction. Wodehouse was also taking the opportunity to make particular fun of a popular romance novelist of the day called Ethel M. Dell.

The story follows James Rodman, a hardboiled mystery novelist who is set to receive a substantial inheritance from his aunt, a romance writer called Leila J. Pinckney on the condition that he spend six months in her countryside cottage. While there Rodman finds, to his horror, his writing and then his life infiltrated by the saccharine characters of his aunt’s writing.

Wodehouse is a unparalleled in his talent for parody, here creating caricatures of both genres and setting them in a battle for supremacy against one another.

In one moment the prose can have all the offhand terseness of a Raymond Chandler novel, and then with screeching abruptness change to the magniloquent sentimentality of an Ethel M. Dell work. Wodehouse does this in both the story at large, and within his samples of Rodman’s writing. The effect is hilariously dissonant, as can be seen in the first instance of an unwanted character showing up in Rodman’s writing:

He shoved in a fresh sheet of paper, chewed his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then wrote rapidly:

"For an instant Lester Gage thought that he must have been mistaken. Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakable.
His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the desk, noiselessly opened a drawer, drew out his automatic. After that affair of the poisoned needle, he was taking no chances. Still in dead silence, he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.
On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faërie. She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him. ‘I believe you've forgotten me, Mr. Gage!’ she fluted with a mock severity which her eyes belied."

James stared at the paper dumbly.

Wodehouse is a veritable craftsman in wit. There’s almost a kind of poetry to this clashing of genre and style. While this skill has not been forgotten, his works of parody are still overshadowed by the success of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. 

For this article we’ve looked at a just few works that broadly parody various genres of literature, there are plenty of others, and more still if we look at more specific parodies. Sherlock Holmes in particular has seen an unprecedented amount of parodic attention. Everyone from our previously mentioned Mark Twain to a teenage George Orwell has had a turn at lampooning the great detective. However, if there are any literary greats who we have missed here do let us know in the comments below.

Etiquette aficionado, available for consultation for all aspects of a gentleman's modern living. Particular interests include: smoking jackets, fountain pens, shoe polish, and shadow puppets.

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