The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs


The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs is a novella published by the writer George Moore in 1927. It, and its 1980’s adapted stage play, is the genesis behind the 2011 film Albert Nobbs. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the movie includes a cast of Glenn Close, Aaron Johnson, Mia Wasikowska, and Janet McTeer. Glenn Close plays the title character, Albert, who is a woman masquerading as a butler in a mid 1920’s Ireland Hotel. Her role is shaken when she must share a bed with a visiting painter, Hubert (played by McTeer), and her identity is discovered. What is more confusing to Albert than having her gender known is that Hubert is as well a woman living as a man. The two form a friendship that cumulates with Hubert suggesting to Albert he ask a woman to marry him so he can have a companion. He chooses the maid Helen (Wasikowska) who is already embroiled in an affair with the boiler man (Johnson). The two scuffle and Albert is hit in the head, tragically dying through internal injury and thus ending the dream of marriage and independence.

This story needs to be represented in the archives because it is a commentary on the queer theory of What is visible and What is invisible. Albert can get no work as a young woman; so she steals a butler’s uniform and enters the profession for the safety and security of the male domain. That first move is already laden with symbolic questioning, because why a butler position? Where wait-staff is seen and not heard, it seems to already be a focus on the visible invisibility of queerdom and drag. Where it is known but it is not acknowledged by mainstream society. The returning theme of hidden and known is aptly summarized during the party scene where the owner of the hotel addresses both himself and Albert, “We are both disguised as ourselves”. There is no more fitting description for the constant conscious struggle of gender-queer in their everyday interactions as the unfamiliarly familiar. Albert is the quantifiable notion of suppression, a woman living as a man working as a butler constantly in fear of losing place and purpose. She cannot reveal her secret because that is actually all she is. What is most intriguing is that even as he saves to own his own shop and gain a measure of freedom, he no longer wishes to run it as a woman. Instead he wishes to marry and have a companion throughout his (drag) career.

Albert embodies himself, he is a butler for thirty years, she is a man for a lifetime, and he no longer identifies with any other name. It calls to *Butler’s thoughts on ‘gender performativity;’ it is a personal example of a constant citation, a sedimentation of repetition. She so continuously plays and believes the role of ‘male’ that given the chance to change, she would not take it. A moment emphasized during her day of ‘reverse drag’ where she walks to the beach in a dress. It is uncomfortable, a caricature of a person who does not exist. He does not want to be a woman in the heteronormative definition of the word; he just wants to create a world where there is neither fear nor threat of discovery. This fear is demonstrated when Albert’s panic of an outside flea accidentally brought in by Hubert leads to exposure. ‘Normal Societal Expectations’ is the flea and Albert “cannot abide fleas”.  There is parallelism drawn from outside forces and how they hinder and damage Albert—for it is the outside force of head trauma that ends his life. What others do to Albert is constantly at odds with what Albert wishes to do for himself. Society is against what Albert is within.

To quote Les Finberg about the fluidity of Gender, it “is the poetry each of us makes out of the language that we are taught”. Albert taught himself to live as a ‘he’, but the nearly universal indiscrimination faced if he were to be found out, discrimination even if she lived as a ‘she,’ is what creates her language of reservation and seperativeness. She suffers under the invisibleness of her biological sex, suffers under the weight of maintaining its invisibility, and the visible invisibility of her chosen profession. Albert lived a quiet, lonesome life, and died a quiet, lonesome death. His life is the theory of what must remain invisible even as the visible creates lasting damage. The constraints placed upon gender, of what is allowed to be known and what is not, is ultimately what killed her. He needed freedom of movement, and that is not possible in a dress. Society’s view of Albert as an ‘impossibility’ created the dichotomy that made her lead such “a miserable life”.

Leave a Reply