Graeme Stones and John Strachan, eds. Parodies of the Romantic Age. 5 vols. London, Pickering & Chatto, 1999. ISBN: 1851964754. Price: £395 (US$650).[Record]

  • Seamus Perry

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  • Seamus Perry
    Glasgow University

This handsome and well-set edition is full of delights and information; but since it has a slightly unusual arrangement, I had better start with that before I pick some plums. It is, in effect, three books amalgamated. Volume one is an edition (by Graeme Stones) of the poetry (and some of the prose) of the Anti-Jacobin of 1797-8; volume three is an edition (by John Strachan) of Warreniana, an obscure volume of clever parodies by William Frederick Deacon, published in 1824; and volume five (also Strachan's work) is an annotated Rejected Addresses, a once famous book of parodies and skits by Peter Patmore (father of Coventry) first published in 1826. That leaves volumes two and three, which are more miscellaneous: the second is John Strachan's gathering of poetic parodies, and the third (mostly) Graeme Stones's of prose, which covers a wide field: excerpts from novels but much else (including a piece of blank verse). The edition has a heterogeneous quality, then, as though about several tasks at once; and editorial intensity varies too, appropriately. The first, fourth, and fifth volumes are full-blown scholarly texts, with sometimes every glancing allusion to the parodied text resourcefully tracked down and noted in the footnotes; while the second and third are well-chosen, amused, informed, readerly selections, in the grand tradition of a compiler like Dwight Macdonald (no higher praise from this reviewer). Heterogeneity in this case proves more of a strength than a limitation, registering an open-mindedness to the intrinisic problems which is entirely wise. 'Parody', like 'romantic', is an unforgiving category, so the editors were facing a doubled-up problem when it came to devising a policy about what to include. No one fights much about romanticism any more, and the period here stretches forward to a Victorian spoof of Charlotte Brontë—a very good one, which I cannot suppose anyone will object to on principle. But the obscurities of parody are more testing, not least because the term has featured so prominently as a kind of norm of 'discourse' (which is to say, 'reality') in much attentively modernist and post-modernist theorising. The editors are suitably conscientious about the difficulties in their introductions and head-notes: Graeme Stones, particularly, in his 'General Introduction', makes refinements and enters some thoughtful discriminations. His approach in this lively and ranging essay is not especially historical: 'parody' (a very coherent-sounding abstract noun which he animates with habits and traits) seems something like a trans-historical impulse of the mind. Its 'disregard for originality' is counter-balanced by a 'disrespect for authority' that encompasses its own authority, so that 'parody' becomes the quality of those texts that view their own capacity to assert with an in-built suspicion: this sounds like parody-as-deconstruction; and connections made with Bakhtin and the meta-narrative novel tend to confirm that vigorously rhetorical account of the idiom. At the same time, of course, parodies importantly exist in relationship to pre-existing texts, with a temper (as the 'Introduction' puts it, nicely) of 'sympathy-in-difference', which draws Stones towards Bloom's revisionary ratios for a description of the parodic process; and they also often exist in relation to pressing historical circumstance. Now, I do not say that these descriptions are mutually exclusive; but they do each imply the critic looking in a different direction: within the parody for its own sceptical disposition, without the parody for its revisionary adroitness, or for the current situation upon which it is commentating. I agree, none of this is more than the old and irresolved tussle between text and context, which we might discover (less squarely faced than Stones does here) anywhere in literary criticism; but …