Gender roles are ‘almost wholly learned’ as Alex Comfort recognized in 1963 (Glover and Kaplan, xx) and as is now widely understood. Judith Butler refines on this, seeing ‘gender as a kind of performance that is performative’ (in J. L. Austin’s sense, in which words and gestures bring about what they signify). She critiques ‘identity categories as a matter of social and political construction, rather than the expression of some kind of essential nature’ (Jagger, 17). Not only is there no true gender underlying the performance, but even the idea of one’s true sex is a cultural product: ‘There is nothing given about gender nor is there any pre-cultural or pre-discursive sex that provides the basis for its cultural construction. Identity is rather an effect of signifying practices rooted in regimes of power/knowledge characterized as compulsory heterosexuality and phallogocentrism’ (20). Cross-dressing can subvert these regimes: ‘When we appropriate the signals and paraphernalia of masculinity and femininity and assign them to the wrong body, we reveal the artificial and arbitrary nature of gender itself’ (Thurer, 146).
But the tide is turning against this radical constructionism. To accept the variety of gender identities and sexual orientations, no longer pathologizing them, and to recognize that people have the right to identify and express themselves as they see fit, does not entail denying that certain basics of sexual identity and sexual orientation are unchangeable, whether because they are of genetic origin or because they lie at the deepest level of the unconscious. The attempt to change such basic identities can be damaging, as in the case of the hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, reassigned to the male gender in 1860, who committed suicide in 1868, and in her memoirs described herself as ‘a sad disinherited creature’ (Glover and Kaplan, xiv). Writing as a therapist, Shari L. Thurer has produced a judicious survey of the variety of positions, which in some way serves as a reality check for extreme ideologies. ‘Missing in Butler’s theory, despite her many disclaimers, is a palpable person… Isn’t Butler’s system just a new form of behaviorism, where there is no being, only a doing?’ (Thurer, 147). ‘In her zeal to deconstruct rigid sex/gender pigeonholing, she bypasses the suffering individual. She puts too much stock in incoherence. She fetishizes fluidity’ (150).
George Moore’s story of cross-dressing and sexual confusion, ‘Albert Nobbs,’ approaches these topics not via ideology or psychotherapy but with a sophisticated empathy learnt from literary tradition. It focuses precisely on the ‘palpable person,’ the ‘suffering individual’ that Butler is accused of bypassing, though it also contains behaviorist insights into ‘the artificial and arbitrary nature of gender itself,’ and its protagonist exhibits plenty of ‘incoherence’ and ‘fluidity.’ When he was twenty-one years old, George Moore was the jealous observer of the affair between Lewis Weldon Hawkins and ‘Alice Howard’: ‘The gender-bending, transsexualising situation is like that of one of Moore’s sacred books from his French years, Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin’ (Frazier, 33-2). In that novel of 1835, d’Albert (Gautier also used the name ‘Albertus’ for another alter ego) does not feel he really loves his mistress Rosette, and is troubled by the attraction of his supposedly male friend Théodore. When Théodore appears as Rosalinde in a performance of As You Like It d’Albert is smitten (Gautier, 255). In gender-bending style, he and Rosette vie for Théodore’s love. Théodore/Madeleine is based on the cross-dressing and bisexual opera singer Madeleine de Maupin, née Julie d’Aubigny (1670-1707), whose lovers included Albert de Luynes and Count Albert of Bavaria (Gautier, xiii). The name ‘Albert Nobbs’ echoes these various Alberts along with ‘knobs,’ slang for the breast.
Moore, always startlingly honest, confessed his own gender confusion (or rather indetermination) in the 1889 French edition of Confessions of a Young Man: ‘Never previously had the soul of a man been so intermingled with that of woman; and to explain the abnormality of this sexual sympathy, I can only imagine that before my birth there had been some hesitation as to my sex. Nevertheless, I was a joyful boy, enamored with adventure and an excellent sportsman; once I had a horse between my legs or a gun in my hands, I gave up all such morbid fantasies, all strange desires to dress up like women, to wear their little boots and dressing gowns’ (quoted, Grubgeld, 87-8). Such psychological unease with one’s assigned or biological gender identity is commonly treated as a pathology, Gender Identification Disorder, but recently we find internet communities claiming sexual identities that have broken away from the straightforward binary of male and female. Young Japanese choose the tags of chūsei, ryōsei or musei (middle sex, both sexes, no sex). Transsexual identities – MtF and FtM – are now supplemented by the ‘X-gender’ these categories point to, and people label themselves MtX and FtX (see Dale). Such self-identifications are more a recognition of one’s essential temperament, it seems to me, than the arbitrary construction of a new identity.
In the essentialist vs. constructionist (nature vs. nurture) controversy about sexual orientation and gender identification, Moore is usually on the essentialist side. His Hugh Monfert, for example, sees his homosexuality as ‘an old original instinct.’ Elizabeth Grubgeld accuses Moore of ‘sexual essentialism’ that suppresses deep analysis of the origins of his characters’ sexuality: ‘Although Moore briefly suggests that Mildred is the product of her repressive education and Momfret (sic) the product of excessive exposure to Greek statuary and Marius the Epicurean, he resorts to a simplistic declaration of “instinct” as the final explanation’ (92). In fact Moore’s phenomenology is quite sound: he differentiates between the primitive datum of sexual orientation and the cultural expressions of it; it is the latter that are influenced by Greek statuary and Pater. Grubgeld is surely not maintaining that a homosexual orientation could be the ‘product’ of such influences? The references to Pater in the story (CSS 5.69) present Pater as a catalyst enabling Monfert to embrace his sexual nature honestly. When Moore laments ‘interpretive codes: glosses learnt by heart before any attempt is made to read the text’ (quoted, Grubgeld, 92-3), he is not espousing constructivism but aiming to retrieve the original natural text of human sexuality. If he ‘proposes that gender roles are the product of culture and without absolute origin in the biological factor of sexuality’ (91), that is again a matter of the imposed interpretive codes rather than the sexual text, which cannot be seen as a cultural product. ‘Several of his characters attempt to form gender identities that combine features of male and female, but repeatedly they find their language incapable of providing a self-description intelligible to themselves and others’ (Grubgeld, 91). Moore would probably say that the fault is in the codes they are forced to live by, which impede realization and expression of their nature..
However, among Moore’s tales of celibates, ‘Albert Nobbs’ stands out as apparently espousing a radically constructionist view of gender and sexual orientation. The tale first appeared in A Story-Teller’s Holiday (1918) – a comic and carnivalesque setting, in which it figures as a story-telling performance by Moore in rivalry with his seanachie companion Alec Trusselby. It is reprinted unchanged in Celibate Lives (1927), the successor to Celibates (1895) and In Single Strictness (1922), replacing ‘Hugh Monfert’ (the new version of the 1895 ‘John Norton’). It is the clou of the collection, Moore’s inspired last word on the topic of ‘celibacy’ that haunts his work. Transferred to the chill, melancholic environment of the ‘Celibates’ series, the story loses some of its comic brio, and its deep mood of irremediable loneliness comes to the fore.
Albert’s gender identity seems the product of his/her clothes and behavior. She performs a masculine role and performatively creates a masculine identity for herself. However, the woman in her is her core reality, and even as she acts the male wooer to Helen her performance is undercut by its feminine motivation; the new sense of life she experiences is a rebirth of her buried femininity, which she had forgotten as Gautier’s heroine does: ‘Through hearing everyone call me “Sir” and seeing myself treated as if I were a man, I gradually forgot that I was a woman’ (Gautier, 287). With every motivation to act masculine, and with every social expectation in its favor, and with a record of success in a male profession, Albert nonetheless cannot perform as a sexual male; bedrock nature overflows performative superstructure. Thurer confronts Butler with ‘the obvious fact that some people with unstable identities are troubled souls’ (Thurer, 150). Albert is certainly such a troubled soul, and it is not mere miserabilism that prompts her to dwell on her trouble. Unlike stories of self-hating homosexuals, this story does not prompt the reader to cry out, ‘Albert, why not affirm your gender versatility proudly!’
‘About one third of male-to-female transgenders, including post-operative transsexuals, go on loving women… These particular transgenders’ wish was not to be conventional women, but to be lesbians. Their basic identity is female and gay, not male and heterosexual’ (Thurer, 4). Do Albert and Hubert have such a basic identity? The sex of their partners seems of little account to them and they are taken in by their own male disguise to a remarkable extent. The merry Hubert plays the male role more dashingly than the melancholic Albert, and had we more access to her psychology might be contrasted with Albert as a model of constructionist versatility.
In the final version of the story the comic dance of embarrassed pronouns begins immediately after Hubert’s recognition, ‘Why, you’re a woman!’ (192). ‘If Albert had had the presence of mind to drop her shirt over her shoulders…’ (193), whereas the 1918 text had ‘his’ here, introducing ‘her’ only three lines later. She begs Hubert not to ‘ruin a poor man,’ and is startled when he calls her ‘my good woman,’ ‘for she had been about so long as a man that she only remembered occasionally that she was a woman, (193). Loss of identity, becoming fused with the mask one dons, can reach down to affect one’s consciousness of one’s gender or sexual orientation; but that does not mean that the original gender and orientation are themselves products of such conditioning. Hubert asks ‘how long ago it was that you became a man’ (193), a locution that takes the pretence for the reality.
Albert suffers a loss of identity that precedes her cross-dressing; she was never told who her parents were. Her attitude to men is noted: ‘I was different then from what I am now, and might have been tempted if one of them had been less rough than the rest’ (194). What most holds her back is the dread of bringing another bastard into the world. ‘I was different then’ suggests that Albert has become asexual, losing all interest in men. She relates that she fell in love with one of her employers, Mr. Congreve: ‘I used to know all his suits, as well I might, for it was my job to look after them, to brush them; and I used to spend a great deal more time than was needed taking out spots with benzine’ (195). Realizing he loves another woman, ‘a sudden faintness’ comes over her, and ‘a feeling that so far as I was concerned all was over.’ Congreve announces the woman’s arrival: ‘I remember the piercing that the words caused me; I can feel them here still; and Albert put her hand to her heart’ (195). Her identity is firmly enough established as a heterosexual woman, not only in the past but in the present. Her convent puritanism may have given her a phobia toward physical sex: ‘It’s disgraceful, it’s wicked, to lead a man into sin’ (195). But this is a mask for acute sexual jealousy: ‘If only he’d spared me his kind words…, I shouldn’t have felt so much that they had lain side by side in the bed that I was making’ (196). Her loneliness, closely associated with her orphaned state, has begun already: ‘It was the hopelessness of it that set the tears streaming down my cheeks over my pillow, and I used to stuff the sheet into my mouth to keep back the sobs lest my old nurse should hear me’ (196). She considers jumping in the Thames, but then boldly invents for herself a new life, a new identity as a male waiter, in several English cities and for the last seven years in Dublin.
‘Seven years, Hubert repeated, neither man nor woman, just a perhapser’ (in all it is twenty-five years, as we learn later, p. 201); he reads on Albert’s face ‘that the words had gone home, and that this outcast from both sexes felt her loneliness perhaps more keenly than before’ (198). Overwhelmed with the sadness of her existence, Albert cannot help feeling that ‘all our trouble is for nothing and can end in nothing. It might have been better if I had taken the plunge’ (198). The word ‘nothing’ is a leitmotif recurring at every level of her story: the nothingness of her origins, of her pretended masculinity, of her thwarted plans, of her identity. Hubert shows insight into a life ‘without man or without woman, thinking like a man and feeling like a woman’ (198) and suggests, ‘you might marry a girl’ (199), revealing that he himself has done so, though he too is a woman: ‘Put your hand under my shirt; you’ll find nothing there’ (199). Of the companionate, but apparently sexless, marriage with the girl he says: ‘We haven’t known an unhappy hour since we married’ (199). Albert supposes that Hubert’s wife is ‘one of them like myself that isn’t always hankering after a man’ (200), but Hubert’s absence leaves her without further explanation.
‘What was she? Nothing, neither man nor woman, so small wonder she was lonely’ (201). Dreaming of marriage, she thinks: ‘though she would continue to be a man to the world, she would be a woman to the dear one at home’ (202). Love and companionship, a home and an identity, is what she thirsts for; she is indifferent to the sex of ‘the dear one.’ Her habit of saving now takes on a warmer significance; ‘a new life was springing up – a life strangely personal and associated with the life without only in this much, that the life without was now a vassal state paying tribute to the life within’ (202). In her fantasies of marriage she plays the man’s role. She dreams in particular of marrying ‘a woman who had transgressed the moral code and been deserted before the birth of her child. In this case it would be supposed that Albert had done the right thing, for after leading the girl astray he had made an honest woman of her’ (203). The attraction of this lies in the outlet for maternal feeling: ‘What matter whether she calls me father or mother? They are but mere words that the lips speak, but love is in the heart and only love matters’ (203).
But she sets herself up for crushing disillusionment as she courts the greedy Helen, in scenes that are both excruciatingly funny and excruciatingly painful. Helen’s real boyfriend Joe suggests: ‘Next time you go out with him work him up a bit and see what he is made of; just see if there’s a sting in him or if he is no better than a capon’ (207). Helen feels the oddness of Albert’s unwillingness to kiss: ‘I might as well go out with my mother’ (207). The farcical climax in which Albert declares his love for Helen: ‘I loved my old nurse very much but I never wished to kiss her like that’ (210) is laced with pathos, for Albert has pinned her heart’s affections on Helen, albeit in a sexless way. Grubgeld says that ‘she begins to feel attraction’ (100), but there is no indication of specifically sexual attraction. ‘Albert continued to plead all the way down Dawson Street, and when they were within twenty yards of the hotel, and she saw Helen passing away into the arms of Joe Mackins, she begged Helen not to leave her’ (211-12). She envies two streetwalkers: ‘For they at least are women, whereas I am but a perhapser’ (212). When she asks one of them if it is true what the other said, that she is better than a love dream, ‘Kitty answered him A shade. Only a shade, Albert returned’ (212). Kitty thinks: ‘If I can get him to come home with me I’ll help him out of his sorrow, if only for a little while’ (213), but even this shade of consolation is not to be. While Albert worries that ‘if they were to go home together her sex would be discovered,’ Kitty is whisked away by a man friend (213). ‘The street-walkers have friends, and when they meet them their troubles are over for the night, but my chances have gone by me’ (213). Mocked by Joe for his ‘old nurse’ remark, Albert is pitied by the maids for her ‘lovelorn’ state (214), and enjoys this wave of sympathy: ‘She was no longer friendless; almost any one of the women in the hotel would have married Albert out of pity for her’ (215). But nothing will come of this either: ‘There had never been anything in her life but a few dreams, and henceforth there would be not even dreams’ (215).
But there is one more cycle of dreaming: ‘from the moment that she saw herself as Hubert’s future wife her life began to expand itself more eagerly than ever in watching for tips’ (216). Hubert’s continuing absence changes her feeling; she fears that if Hubert does return it will be to squander her hard-saved money on his wife, perhaps even using her secret to blackmail her. The story is sandwiched between two references to Albert picking up and kissing the child George Moore, the second occurring here: ‘The little red-headed boy on the second floor told me, Mrs. Baker said..., that he was afraid of Albert, and he confided to me that Albert had tried to pick him up and kiss him. Why can’t he leave the child alone? Can’t he see that the child doesn’t like him?’ (217). Now we understand this molesting behaviour from within, as a reflection of Albert’s thwarted maternal longings.
After Albert’s death, the hotel staff wonder ‘what would have happened on the wedding night? Nothing, of course’ (217). Sadly, Hubert, now widowed, would have gone into partnership with Albert. Now she asks herself: ‘I wonder what is going to be the end of my life. What new chance do the years hold for me?’ (219). This leads her back to her husband, ‘who might now be a different man from the one she left behind’ (219). It is really the ‘piercing thought’ of her two daughters that draws her back. Alec suggests she could tell her husband that ‘she was taken away by the fairies whilst wandering in a wood… A woman that marries another woman, and lives happily with her, isn’t a natural woman; there must be something of the fairy in her’ (220). Simone Benmussa uses this as the closing line of her adaptation of the story, and does not have Hubert return to her husband at all. She may tilt the story in the direction of a plaidoyer for lesbian marriage, using Moore’s line: ‘It would seem that this marriage was as successful as any and a great deal more than most’ (CSS 5.201). Indeed, a lesbian strand in Hubert’s nature might be what Albert lacks; or perhaps Hubert is simply free of Albert’s constricting modesty. According to Elin Diamond, ‘the play’s utilization of Moore’s narrative frame presents Albert as a set of various signifiers, a person whose body, dress, name, and thoughts are “dispersed over a textual field; Nobbs is not singular at all but plural, a gesture, a line of description, with no wholeness of identity to structure the field”’ (Grubgeld, 96). ‘It is Moore himself who foregrounds the problem of Albert’s life as a story constructed, narrated, and heard by men’ (Grubgeld, 97), saluted by Alec as ‘the finest [story] that ever came out of Ballinrobe’ (CSS 5.220).
Gilbert and Gubar see Dublin as ‘cleansed of the queerness this woman represents’ (337), noting the Hubert goes back to being a normal wife and mother. They claim that Bernassa ‘revises Moore’s tale to expose “the genesis of the story” as a historical reality’ (33). Albert is forced to ‘confront the lack that Moore identifies with her femininity.’ But in reality Moore is lodging a quiet protest against the exorcizing of queerness in the hotel staff’s reactions and in Hubert’s return to orthodox gender identity. The story upholds the dignity of what society regards as a farcical anomaly. If its protagonists see themselves as ‘castrated men,’ this is not Moore’s view, as he highlights ‘the linguistic nature of gender identity by dispersing the narrative through the frame tale, dialogue, interior monologue, and indirect discourse’ (Grubgeld, 99). The blunt heterosexual narrative subscribed to by Joe Mackins and the hotel staff is exposed in its oppressive crassness by the subtlety of the multi-layered tale.
Moore’s deep soundings of loneliness in a repressive, sex-hating society are the best known part of his liberationist effort. Moore ‘describes, with wonderfully compassionate insight, Albert Nobbs’s daily indignities, the small revolting brutalities of an insensitive world, and above all, the constant loneliness of the “perhapser,”’ (Kennelly, 148), with ‘precisely the right kind of intense understatement’ (149). He rebels against ‘the atmosphere of unrelieved poverty and squalor; the frustration of all ideals; the suppression of individual thinking; the hysterical fear of sex as the supreme evil of which man is capable; the confusion of servility with obedience, furtive inhibition with virtuous self-denial, caution with wisdom; the fear of full expression and hence the distrust of the artist’ (153-4). But the moralistic fear of sex is not a theme of this story; the Church and other moral agencies are absent. Rather it reveals a deeper, hidden strain in Moore’s revolt, as it tackles rigid sexual and gender expectations in a way that could be fully accepted only in our time, and that generated much queasy distaste in his own.
Moore was popular as a ‘decadent’ writer in China and Japan, where his play with gender may have been more readily understood. Junichiro Tanizaki loved Moore’s autobiographies and found in his historical novels such as Heloise and Abelard a narrative style reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese monogatari (Suzuki, 153). Wim Lunsing’s ground-breaking research on ‘people who fail to fit Japanese common-sense constructions of either female or male gender’ (13) might show points of intersection between Moore’s struggle and that of such people in Japan today. The following anecdote, for example, resonates obliquely with the fates of Moore’s celibates. A man aged sixty had ‘spent his life changing from one job to another and knew very well that the fact that he was not married increasingly restricted his job opportunities. Nevertheless he always thought that it was wrong for a gay man to marry and persisted in his principles. He never had a lover because he would not start an affair with someone who wanted him if he did not love them, and, similarly, the men he fell in love with rejected his advances. Hase san spent many years of his life working as an office cleaner, which was one of the few jobs he could obtain once he was 40 years old and was made redundant at the publishing company where he worked until then’ (Lunsing, 112). The atmosphere of ‘nothing’ here has the same poignancy as in Moore. Hubert’s arrangement resembles a Japanese ‘friendship marriage’: ‘Many homosexual men see this as an ideal arrangement and also some women choose to marry a homosexual man on these terms because it gives them the status of a married woman without much of the burden, such as demands by the husband to have sex’ (125).
In China, Moore could be read without the screen of Victorian prudery and obscurantism that dominated the English critical reception and without the disapproval that his Irish compatriots felt. Shao Xunmei, who translated Memoirs of my Dead Life in 1929, gave a ‘most empathetic’ account of Moore’s ‘intellectual peregrinations,’ almost as if he were writing his own memoirs’ (Lee, 246). He saw Moore as a ‘bohemian aesthete’ (247) and a ‘hedonist,’ as opposed to the ‘decadent’ Wilde, and he ‘read Verlaine in the hedonistic light of Moore’ (249). ‘His particular fixation on George Moore’s memoirs led him to adopt what Richard Gilman has called a “romantic, even apocalyptic” view and a “ludicrous and even excessive” misreading of Baudelaire and decadence’ (248). We might probe more deeply into the sex and gender aspects of this reception of Moore as a liberator.
Almost a century old, ‘Albert Nobbs’ survives sturdily, putting in question by its psychological truth and literary density not only the conservative ideologies then dominant but also some ambitious modern theories that are insufficiently tried and tempered by reference to real experience. Setting this Dublin story alongside those of Joyce, one sees how essential is Moore’s place among the psychological masters of Modernism. Meanwhile we can look forward to seeing the film adaptation, starring Glenn Close as Albert, which should thrust Moore’s questions to the forefront of awareness again.
Simone Benmussa La vie singulière d'Albert Nobbs (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1977).
Simone Benmussa with Allan McClelland The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, 1978.
Sonya P. F. Dale, ‘X-Gender: “Gender Ambiguity” in Contemporary Japan,’ paper read at a workshop on ‘Sexual boundary crossings and sexual contact zones in East Asia,’ Sophia University Institute of Comparative Culture, Oct. 2, 2010.
Adrian Frazier, George Moore, 1852-1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
Théophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin, ed. Adolphe Boschot (Paris: Garnier, 1966).
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2: Sexchanges (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
David Glover and Cora Kaplan, Genders (London: Routledge, 2000).
Elizabeth Grubgeld, George Moore and the Autogenous Self: The Autobiography and Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994).
Gill Jagger, Judith Butler: Sexual politics, social change and the power of the performative (London: Routledge, 2008).
Brendan Kennelly, ‘George Moore’s Lonely Voices: A Study of his Short Stories,’ in Graham Owens, ed., George Moore's Mind and Art (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968), 144-65.
Leo Ou-Fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China 1930-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Wim Lunsing, Beyond Common Sense: Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary Japan (London: Kegan Paul, 2001).
Elizabeth McConnell, ‘Give me a passion for God or man...’: A Study of George Moore's Celibates Series, 1895-1927 (MA thesis, University College Galway, 1992). ‘
George Moore, Albert Nobbs et autres vies sans hymen, intr. Pierre Leyris (Paris: Mercure de France 1977).
----- The Collected Short Stories of George Moore: Gender and Genre, ed. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005) = CSS.
Joseph S. O’Leary, ‘Father Bovary,’ in Robert Welch, ed., The Way Back: George Moore's The Untilled Field and The Lake (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982), 105-18.
----- ‘George Moore between Zola and Gide: The Case of “John Norton”’, The Harp 12 (1997):90-102.
----- ‘Introduction to George Moore (1852-1933)’. English Literature and Language 40 (2003) 33-43.
----- Review of George Moore, Parnell and His Island, Journal of Irish Studies 20 (2005):103-5.
Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the self: fictions of Japanese modernity (Stanford Univerity Press, 1996).
Shari L. Thurer, The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy (London: Routledge, 2005).
PUBLISHED IN Journal of Irish Studies 26 (2011)