Anglicans Online banner
Independent On the web since 1994 More than 200 000 readers More than 10 000 links Updated every Sunday

Help support AO!
Make a donation
Shop for AO goods
Thanks to our contributors

New This Week
Everything new is here.

Start here
Anglicans believe . . .
The Prayer Book
The Bible

News flash: a summary of the top headlines
News Centre
News archive

Over to you . . .
Add a site to AO
Tell us what you think
Link to AO

Resources A to Z, including
 Book of Common Prayer
 and much more ...

World Anglicanism
Anglican Communion
In full communion
Not in the Communion

Dioceses and Parishes
New Zealand

Vacancies Centre
Job openings worldwide

Anglicans Online
Back issues
Awards and Publicity
Beginnings, AO today
Our logo: The gryphon

AO search button


The Picture of Dorian Gray book coverHallo again to all.

Remember Dorian Gray? He of the portrait in the attic? You may recall that in Wilde's clever but chilling novel, the picture reflected the lines of ageing and the fissures of face incurred by Dorian Gray's dissolute living, whilst its living counterpart swanned through the world, smooth of skin and clear of eye.

Remember The Happy Hypocrite? If you do, you're rare. Sir Max Beerbohm's 1897 story 'A Fairy Tale for Tired Men' is Dorian Gray's inverse. A rapacious dandy named Lord George Hell is utterly smitten with a virtuous young actress. His reputation procedes him everywhere, and even though he gazes at her night after night on the stage, he knows he'd never be admitted to her dressing room. What to do? A classical solution lies at hand. Visit a brilliant mask-maker and have him craft an artificial wax face of handsome virtue, with firm chin, noble nose, and clear brow. No George Hell at all in the bloodlines. As mask makers do in fairy tales, he made such a mask, fitted it to Lord George's face perfectly, and...

Fast forward to the Regency Theatre. The actress admits the disguised reprobate to her dressing room, falls in love after a few minutes, agrees to marry him after a few weeks, and they do indeed begin to live happily ever after in a cottage in the countryside some distance from London. But the past catches up in the form of a scorned mistress from Hell's earlier life. She cannot bear that this thoroughly nasty man has been able to make a new life, utterly successful at fooling his wife.

A bleedin' obvious maskIn a tempest of anger she traipses from London to the Countryside Cottage and appears at the garden gate, shrieking curses and threats at Mr and Mrs Hell, who have come out to see whatever is going on in their garden. Mrs Hell is frightened and confused, Lord George is appalled that he has been found out after several years of idyllic happiness, and the Scorned Mistress is triumphant. She springs at him and tears at the mask that has so long been a part of him. The wax gives way, falls to the ground, and lies melting in the sun. The Scorned Mistress cackles with glee, assured that she has ruined the new life of George Hell. He, of course, has no choice but to face his wife. She has been stunned into silence, horrified. She says, as Lord George begins to turn to her, 'Whatever is that mask on the ground? Who was that woman?' And as he is about to reply, he drops his hands from his face, and faces his wife. 'And,' she adds in greater wonderment, 'why, oh why, have you for all these years worn a mask that is the same as your own face?'

Truth. Lies. Honesty. Disguises. We are so accustomed to think in binary terms: there is black and there is white. There is wrong and there is right. 'Better die than tell a lie', went the schoolchild's maxim. But when is a mask only a metaphor for the adoption—the soul-deep adoption—of a set of behaviours that eventually become us? Isn't choosing to live as a Christian, to be a Christian, taking on the 'mask', as it were, that was prepared for you at baptism? Ideally, our faces, our lives, through God's grace, with every passing year, become more Christ-like. The mask of a Christian becomes more and more our own face, our own soul. It is only when we do not take seriously the business of masks—we put on our Christian face for Sunday, but doff it at the workplace—that the question of hypocrisy enters in. Then the mask isn't a soul-making face, but a child's disguise that wouldn't fool anyone.

This week you can read the astounding story of a woman who chose, quite deliberately, to put on a mask. It's a long story, but a spell-binding one. Called The Stranger, you'll need to register with the newspaper to read it, but it's worth the bit of hassle. It almost reads like a fairy tale.

And we all know that fairy tales aren't Factual, but they are certainly True.

See you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 9 February 2003

This web site is independent. It is not official in any way. Our editorial staff is private and unaffiliated. Please contact about information on this page. ©2003 Society of Archbishop Justus