Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland. Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town labourer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity – that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.
Albert Nobbs is a novella I’ve had on my radar for a while, ever since I saw trailers for the film adaptation starring Glenn Close. When it comes to adaptations, I always want to read the book first and I was glad to have the occasion to pick it up as part of the Classics Challenge, hosted by The Pretty Books.
This short novella is written in something close to a stream of consciousness in the third person. The story is narrated by an omniscient narrator telling the story of Albert Nobbs to someone else. In just a few pages, we find ourselves in a very old fashioned society where women – especially unmarried ones – have little hope of having a rich and fulfilling life. Women can’t really live on their own, and they earn less than men.
We learn that Albert Nobbs is an orphan raised by a nanny. When the nanny dies, Albert has to find a way to make a living. Albert Nobbs is initially introduced as a male character and the narrator uses the pronouns ‘he’, but when Albert is revealed to be a woman pretending to be a man to make a living, the narrator changes to ‘she’ when talking about Albert. Albert realises early on that she can earn more money dressing as a man and she starts a career as a waiter. Through the course of the book, Albert sees herself not as a man or as a woman but as something in the middle – a ‘perhapser’. In this society, the gender roles are clearly defined and each person has to fit in one or the other of the gender roles if they want to survive. It is interesting how gender feels more like a social role, regardless of what a person might feel they are or how their body is. At this time, a person could disappear and establish themselves as another person without there being much paperwork involved, so the gender a person was assigned to at birth didn’t matter as much in a way. On the other side of the coin, there were only two distinct ways to be – female or male – and there wasn’t much chance to be anything in the middle.
I always find it fascinating to see how things were in the past, as the tendency is always to think that things get progressively better (which is true much of the time) but in this case, it’s inspiring to see how Albert creates this persona quite easily and manages to survive for many years. But the weight of the lie affects Albert deeply. As the years pass, it becomes harder to maintain the secrecy and to deal with the loneliness of that choice.
This short novella manages to include all of the anguish, freedom, fear and weight of Albert choosing to live as a man. After meeting another woman who presents as a man to make a living, Albert thinks more and more about the other possibilities of her life. She wonders about taking a wife and all the consequences that this would involve. I felt the writing was powerful and it gave food for thought regarding the social role that gender had at the time and how it relates to the way things are today.
The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs was originally published in 1918 as part of the short story collection A Story-Teller’s Holiday and published again in 1927 as part of the Celibate Lives collection. It was made into a play on Broadway and was adapted for the big screen in 2011. George Moore was an Irish writer who was influenced by the French realist writers such as Emile Zola. He chose to write about themes that weren’t written about much in his time, including lesbianism, prostitution and extramarital sex which created controversy when he published them. I enjoyed reading Albert Nobbs and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books.