Last week I visited the Greater Manchester Police Museum – definitely worth a trip if you have not been already, it was fantastic! I went in search of my beloved Harry Stokes and some information about Special Constables in Manchester which he was a part of. I spoke to the curator who took me to the archives to show me the information about Harry that had been gathered by Jenny White at Warp and Weft Blog. I emailed and we chatted when she directed me to a talk she did about Harry last year where she referenced a film called Albert Nobbs – obviously I was intrigued and luckily it was on Amazon Prime – Friday evening sorted!
The film was a 2012 production directed by Rodrigo Garcia starring Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Mia Wasikowska (Helen Dawes) and Janet McTeer (Hubert Page). The film is a dramatic adaptation of a 1927 novella by George Moore called The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs (published in Celibate Lives), it was also made into a French play in 1977 by Simone Benmussa.
Set at the end of the nineteenth century in the Morrison’s Hotel Dublin ran by Mrs Baker, Albert was a shy but attentive Butler in the establishment. Albert was secretive and a private man, later the audience understands he was saving his money to buy his own tobacconist for himself and his future wife to run together. We also learn that Albert concealed his body to assume a masculine lifestyle despite his female biology. This was for financial reasons as he wanted to be successful as an entrepreneur.
It is later revealed that his biological identity stopped him from providing for himself and it was safer and viable to be a single working-class man that it was a single working-class woman. Inevitably this made me question Albert’s motives as a man and implied that it was society that had forced him to assume a male identity to be financially secure. Men equalled protection in the nineteenth century and they had the monopoly on survival. Albert also hints at his background and the reason for his gender passing identity. He was an orphaned child and brought up by an aunt, he was always known as Albert and not a typically female name. He describes being attacked and being hurt as a woman, resulting in his identity change and him assuming a masculine identity for protection.
Early on in the film Albert is required to share his room with the painter Hubert Page. He is a rough and rugged looking man and very much the opposite to prim and proper Albert, but instantly there is a connection. Hubert sees Albert undressing his right, restrictive corset when he is bitten by a flea. Obviously Albert is scared and fears his exposure. the following day Hubert reveals he too is biologically female and it happily married to Kathleen. It suggests that Hubert gender passing is permanent VS Albert’s temporality passing as he indicates that there would be a woman behind his counter when he purchases his shop.
There is a parallel story running throughout being Helen Dawes and Joe Mackens. Joe suggests that Helen ‘walk out’ with Albert and find out what money he has for them to take from him and escape to America. Helen becomes pregnant and Joe becomes violent – their relationship is toxic. Albert sees the aftermath and says that he will still stay with Helen and provide for them as a family. This reminded me of an 1825 case where John Murphy was made to marry Lacy Davis at her mothers request to protect his own secret and identity. Likewise, an eighteenth century case showed how Mr and Mrs James How took in an orphan girl and raised her as their own despite being in a gender passing relationship. This suggests the need for the heteronormative roles and responsibilities to be good and successful in the nineteenth century when the film was set.
Typhoid fever broke out in Dublin which resulted in an epidemic in the city, ultimately it killed Kathleen – Hubert’s wife. Albert was also ill but survived and visited Hubert, he suggested that the pair come together as partners and live as he and Kathleen did. Essentially, Albert was desperate for companionship and for love. The pair discuss their previous lives as women and subsequently go out dressed as women. For Hubert is visibly clear that he is uncomfortable as a woman and more relaxed as a man. However, Albert seems free and happy as a woman suggesting that he is only forced to fulfil social expectations and shows how he chooses safety over freedom.
The final part of the film is mixed in feelings – Albert dies trying to protect Helen from Joe but he dies alone and unloved which was all that he wanted. Ironically, Albert is found by Helen the following day.
Mrs Baker finds Albert’s money of over 500 pounds. Hubert returns to paint the hotel and finds Helen had given birth to a son. Helen recalls how Mrs Baker allows Helen and the child to say for board if she is their unpaid servant. The life of Helen Dawes suggests this may have been the life Albert did had he not lived as a man. The film ends with Hubert asking the child’s name, he was called Albert Joseph.
I though that the film really tackled gender passing well in how they portrayed Hubert and Albert. The pair were at different stages in their own gender identity journey. Albert was new, socially awkward but tried to fit in – economically and socially – but this was at the expense of his own happiness. Hubert was comfortable with his life, and was successful in his own gender passing. Albert was also successful in that people did not suspect, but was that what he wanted?
Definitely worth a watch on this drizzly Bank Holiday Monday!
‘Female Husband’, Leeds Intelligencer, (West Yorkshire), 14/07/1825.
‘Mary East, The Female Husband’, The Odd Fellow, (London; England), 02/05/1840.