“The Happy Hypocrite” is a short story by Max Beerbohm first published 1897. Basically, in this misogynistic tale, a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues a much younger girl anyway. Her goodness improves his countenance for real, and he is rewarded by owning her forever after.
Lest you think “The Happy Hypocrite” is a story of its time, there have been many popular stories since in which a boy or a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues the girl anyway, and is rewarded with her at the end after undergoing an improving character arc.
Apparently, this sotry is a more humorous version of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, but since I haven’t read that this isn’t part of my response.
The Role Of Masks In “The Happy Hypocrite”
I’ve previously written about the role of masks in storytelling.
When reading this short story, I’m first reminded of a voice excerpt on the Paris Wells album Various Small Fires. A man says
My heart and brain concur.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.
(You’ll find it at the end of “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.
Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Atheists would say yes. Perhaps we are all in love with someone who doesn’t exist, insofar as it’s never possible to know another completely.
Is it possible to change completely? To what extent can being in love change us? Do we become more like our romantic partners?
Masks in stories tend to throw up these kinds of questions.
Setting of “The Happy Hypocrite”
“The Happy Hypocrite” takes a real world setting (specific parts of London) and marries it with Greek mythology to create a story which feels out of place in the Golden Argosy collection. It starts off feeling like a period drama, then feels like Greek mythology, then the happily married elopes into the woods and it’s a European fairytale. (Which woods? By 1900 Britain was 5% woods, which is half what there is now.) A sixteen-year-old girl falls in love with a bad man in a mask, and because she is so lovely, he becomes lovely too, atones for his sins in order to remain with her and they both live happily ever after, even after his mask comes off.
So although the story starts off with a premise I find really interesting, it’s quite a Victorian didactic tale with the moral that if you do good then you are good. This story is also a close relative of ‘female maturity formula‘, in which a female character is used to show a man how he can be a better person. Perhaps she is more closely related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
Note the binary between the debauched city (London) and the utopia of nature. Before his turn, George hates the country. He even hates flowers. But Jenny teaches him all about flowers, he learns to love the country and nature and he is turned into a better man. In other words, city = bad, country = good.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE”
The story opens with a clear viewpoint homodiegetic narrator and a story starring the evocatively named Lord George Hell. His shortcoming (great naughtiness) is clearly listed straight away. He is ‘greedy, destructive and disobedient’. We don’t yet know who he is ‘disobedient’ to. This may also be his greatest strength.
He has a fondness for clothes, suggesting he dresses above his station, even though he is titled.
He is brutally honest. The narrator doesn’t see that as a good thing, since his honestly itself is evil.
I’m getting the vibe of a camp character, sort of the Gordon Ramsay of the street, passing judgment for fun and to deliberately insult. The narrator compares him to Caligula (a tyrannical Roman Emperor) with a dash of Sir John Falstaff (a loveable rogue invented by Shakespeare).
In fact, the entire first section is a character study of this man, highlighting his faults. How does the author make this guy interesting? An all bad character is pretty boring. But Lord George Hell has become a legendary figure, used as a Wee Willy Winky character by nurses when cajoling their young charges. The man has a few unusual traits — he doesn’t smoke when we might expect him to. And we don’t know why he’s allowed to get away with card sharking. ‘We can only wonder that he was tolerated at all.’ The fact that he hasn’t been completely ostricised from society already makes us wonder what he did to break the camel’s back.
It seems Lord George Hell is only interested in being king pin of his own local environs, hoodwinking others, getting rich as a result. But when he fells madly in love at first sight, with a girl less than half his age, we learn that he did desire true love after all.
This particular desire of his is not questioned in the text. It is taken as a given that a man who is good deserves a lovely sixteen-year-old girl for his bride, and that this is the pinnacle of ‘done well for himself’.
Yet this story is still recommended by some for a wonderful depiction of the beauty of grace. As you can probably tell, that’s not what I got out of it.
A mystery functions as opposition. A mystery is set up right away and the narrator is going to withhold this information for suspense: Why did Lord George Hell suddenly disappear? This applies to the wrapper story.
La Gambogi is a fairytale witch archetype who becomes George’s nemesis when she threatens to take off his mask.
The binary between ‘good girl’ and ‘evil woman’ is stark in this story, with the character of spurned lover La Gambogi compared to a large cat at the end, which is one way women are often dehumanised, whether women are fighting, talking or having sex.
When George falls in love at first sight he beseeches the object of his affection but because he is an asshole he won’t take no for an answer.
There is a physical tousle in the utopian world created by the lovers (in full limerance, having been together for only one month).
When the mask comes off and it matches his actual face, George realises that by being good he has become so.
This 35 year old man has atoned for all past sins, had a complete turn-around and will now live in the forest, humbly, with a 16 year old girl who is plenty young enough to bear many of his children.