Albert Nobbs
[Reading Challenge 2018]

Cover of Albert Nobbs by George Moore
Albert Nobbs

by George Moore
Waitingstar Publishing, New York, 2011

[Challenge # 38: A book made into a major motion picture]

Finished Albert Nobbs, a book that kept me guessing until the end.

I’ve wanted to read it for a while, since I’ve always liked books with gender bending, or obscurely gendered, protagonists. I did not come blind to the book; I chose it I knew it was about a woman who disguises herself as a male butler. But how, and why, and what happens after that, was what kept me turning the pages. Though a novelette, I read it slowly, and may read it yet again,  just to digest the richness of the language and the archaic style of writing.

(This review contains spoilers, so if you hadn’t read it, and are wanting to be surprised, like me, don’t go any further.)

This book carries a reputation as being sympathetic towards characters who are breaking away from the gender norm. In reading about the author, George Moore, after I finished, he was indeed sympathetic towards gay and lesbian characters and endowed them with sympathy and humanity, something that was not common in the age in which he wrote. The mentions are low key, as in Albert Nobbs, but clearly there; however, they are just as clearly overlooked by readers wishing to see a more mainstream narrative.

Writer George Moore, by Edward Manet

Sketch of George Moore, by painter Edouard Manet

Albert Nobbs begins by not being about Albert Nobbs at all. Instead, it starts with two blokes having a chat in Dublin about how the city has changed, and one of them casually mentions the strange butler who used to terrorize him as a child by his (her) unworldly appearance:

… his squeaky voice remains in my ears. He seemed to be always laughing at me, showing long, yellow teeth, and used to be afraid to open the sitting-room door, for I’d be sure to find him waiting on the landing, his napkin thrown over his right shoulder. I think I was afraid he’d pick me up and kiss me. As the whole of my story is about him, perhaps I’d better describe him more fully, and to do that I will tell you that he was a tall, scraggy fellow. With big hips sticking out, and a long, thin, throat. It was his throat that frightened me as much as anything about him, unless it was his nose, which was a great high one, or his melancholy eyes, which were pale blue and very small, deep in the head.

The narrator then tells the story of the butler’s life, acting as a stand-in for the author who might have told the story to the reader directly, but by using that framing device removes himself from the more controversial twists and turns therein. So the narrative is twice removed, but, somehow it works, and the framing device that seemed clunky also allowed the writer to express his own ideas about class and gender.

Albert’s adventure starts when, having been established as an exemplary employee who lives in her employer’s hotel to save money, she is requested to share her bedroom and bed with a contractor doing some painting for the hotel’s owner who can’t find any other accommodation for the night. (I’m sure this was a common occurrence in the Victorian age the story takes place in, and perhaps something of a plot cliché of that time too.) Albert fears being exposed as a woman, yet tries to make the best of it as she shares her bed. And of course she is exposed as a female… and, as it turns out, the painter she thought was a man is, in fact, a female in disguise just as she is!

This chance meeting and the painter’s story (which is a story in a story in a story) of leaving an unhappy marriage and disguising herself as a man to earn a trade, even marrying an accepting woman to join economic forces and gain a middle class life, gives Albert ideas. She discovers she need not labor alone and incognito, always fearful of being found out, but can find a trusted confidante, gain respectability, and live a normal life… all hinging on finding another woman who agrees with her plan, as her true gender cannot be kept a secret even in a marriage of convenience.

The story turns humorous as Albert mulls over possible candidates, before deciding on a maid who works in the hotel who she thinks has the proper temperament. She begins her courtship, but can never quite be fully trustful of Helen, the young woman who believes Albert a man, yet not enough not like a man.  Helen has a casual boyfriend in Joe, a waiter who also works at the hotel, and the difference between him and Albert makes her suspicious. She knows Albert has more money and respectability and offers advancement for her life – Albert carefully save and buys her courtship gifts to prove just that – yet the dissonance is there. Thus the two never quite connect, and things go haywire, and the disillusionment and heartbreak begin.

It’s all psychologically on the nose, and in spite of the framing of the story, and the Edwardian language, and the odd way it is written (long, long, paragraphs, no quotation marks) I was drawn into it completely. The language was oddball in parts, yet lyrical. It would have been perfect read out loud.

When the tragedy plays itself out, the framing device muffles rather than amplifies it, driving the lessons home without additional emotional wear and tear on the reader.

The story can be read as a cry for gay acceptance, and also a manifesto for a dreamer. But my take on it is that it’s more a mild parody of the Protestant middle class than an allegory of queerness. Hard work and having savings, Albert believes, are necessary for a middle class Victorian Dublin, which includes a townhouse, piano, nice carpets and lace curtains. It’s also necessary for men and women to marry and join forces in this endeavor, so therefore, it makes sense for one partner or the other to switch genders to gain it.

Touching, sly, and heartbreaking. I give it five stars.

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