Passing strange: Albert (Glenn Close, right) fails to win the love of Helen (Mia Wasikowska)
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and Brendan Gleeson
Released in the UK on April
What meanings does the gender-crossing woman carry, and how have these meanings changed over the past 150 years? In her latest film, Glenn Close stars as the eponymous Albert Nobbs, a waiter in a late-19th century Dublin hotel, whose female sex is revealed to workmates only upon his death. However, Albert is not alone in his/her masquerade. Early in the narrative he is obliged to share a bed with painter and decor-ator Hubert Pane (Janet McTeer). Despite the protective layers of corset and shirt tails, the secret is uncovered when he is attacked by fleas introduced by this interloper. Next day, Hubert reveals s/he is also a passing woman. Not only that, he is married to another woman, and the film follows Albert’s new awareness of what life could potentially offer to a man-woman. The film is loosely based on George Moore’s short story of the same title, first published in 1918, and subsequently in his collection Celibate Lives (19). Moore had based his fiction on a newspaper report of a similar real-life story.
Audiences in 2012 might interpret the passing woman as a transgendered person - a “trans-man” - or perhaps as a masculine-identified lesbian. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before such modern sexual identities developed, the masquerading woman was a common figure in popular culture, occupying a curious but recognisable role, one most likely chosen for economic benefit or to escape the constraints of femininity. Newspaper stories, especially in the mass-circulation Sunday press, described many “astonishing” cases of women living successfully as men, eventually and sensationally uncovered in the courts, in hospital, or after death.
These reports, couched in a register of marvel and entertainment, did not condemn but rather celebrated the boldness and skill of the man-woman, in a period when gender differences were seen as fixed and distinct. Contemporary understanding of such cross-dressing stories was framed not only by the familiarity of the genre but also by a parallel form of mass entertainment, the male impersonator on the music hall stage (and increasingly in cinema). Male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Hetty King wore well-fitting fashionable men’s clothes and used detailed mimicry to parody and also to flatter masculinity. Their humorous, patriotic or sentimental songs poked fun at contemporary male types, from the bad-boy “swell” or ladies’ man, with his swaggering self-importance and empty pretensions, to the more genteel, principal-boy masculinity of the smart waiter or bellboy.
In 1912, the News of the World reported the “bold escapade” of 23-year-old Adelaide Dallamore, who decided to work as a plumber’s mate in order to set up home with her devoted “girl chum” in Chiswick. “Dressed in workmen’s clothes, with her smooth, boyish face and rather low-pitched voice, she would easily pass as a young man,” said the News of the World on 7 April 1912. Dalla-more resourcefully acquired experience as a plumber’s mate (puncturing the notion of gendered skills), went fishing and played football with the men. Any unease about the strength of the same-sex partnership was dissipated by the light-hearted tone of the story and the humour inherent in tricking workmates. Dallamore emphasised the social advantages of living as a man and the ease with which it could be achieved, demonstrating the subversive pleasures of homoeroticism and gender fluidity.
Albert Nobbs’ Hubert Pane is a trickster figure firmly embedded in this tradition, dismissing conventional gender boundaries, fulfilling a male work role with aplomb, achieving easy same-sex intimacy with a wife, flirting with the hotel proprietress and smoking jaunty roll-ups with a masculine knowingness. Like the newspaper reports, this story is full of humour, as he fools his employers and colleagues who never guess he is not a man. Hubert remains in charge of his life and his identity, bouncing back at the end of the film to get the girl, the baby and the redecorating contract, while all the time being the only character to know Albert’s full story. Both Dallamore and Hubert fit the conventional ideals of working-class masculinity of their period; demonstrating strength or skill in masculine work, the ability to “be a good fellow” in socialising with other men, and success as a breadwinner supporting a respectable household.
In the film, Hubert and Albert perform very different kinds of class-based masculinities, and represent contrary versions of historical gender-passing. Waiter Albert Nobbs, the central character, is truer to Moore’s representation as the asexual androgyne, who can neither express her dormant femininity without pathos nor mobilise sufficient masculine flair to develop a satisfying emotional life. The contrasting masculinities of the two “Berts” provides further understanding of Albert’s oddity. Hubert has a skilled trade but it consists of dirty manual labour. He is content to get a decent living and go home to his chirpy wife. Albert is “in service” but has higher aspirations, believing that, although orphaned and abandoned, he came from “grand folk”. His period of superior schooling has given him the cultural capital to be a successful and discreet waiter, earning over the years some £500 in tips. Men in service roles and white-collar jobs were certainly seen as effeminate, and less than “real” men, but this perception also affords Albert some leeway with colleagues when he is distracted by Hubert’s revelation and later by his dreams of domestic happiness with a wife. He obsessively saves to buy a tobacconist’s shop, which would put him into the lower middle class. The cash that he accumulates and secretes below the floorboards represents his only currency of self-worth, although crucially it may not buy his happiness, the affection of Helen the maid. To her, Albert’s masculinity is insufficiently attractive or sexual; his performance of gender is fragile and frequently undermined. At best he is dapper and in full command of his small world of the dining room and guest bedrooms, a faded Vesta Tilley.
Albert portrays a remarkably de-eroticised form of gender-crossing. The appeal for him of Hubert’s domestic happiness answers a yearning for companionship rather than for sexual fulfilment, although he (like the newspaper readers of similar stories) wonders when Hubert’s wife was let into the secret - on the wedding night or beforehand? The film posits modern psycho-sexual explanations for gender-crossing, rather than the historical rationale of economic and social freedom. Albert’s shut-down sexuality and difficulty in connecting emotionally is a consequence of sexual abuse by a gang of men when a 14-year-old girl, his tale implies. Hubert, similarly, took on men’s clothing after experiencing a husband’s domestic violence, but achieved retribution by making off with his decorator’s tools and work clothes. Hubert’s physical ease and appealing gender-crossing sexuality is part of his attractive masculinity within the film and also works for current audiences, in a reminder of the music-hall male impersonator’s sexy cynical worldliness. Indeed, Hubert/McTeer’s brazen “reveal” scene in the hotel kitchen is already a classic clip on lesbian blogging sites.
Older forms of gender-crossing, such as female masquerading, cannot be seamlessly mapped on to modern sexual identities, and their meanings necessarily remain opaque and tantalising. The film plays with these various historical traditions entertainingly and with some (melo)dramatic success. The central character of Albert makes the sadder commentary on the past, suggesting the failures and indignities of performative masculinity in the lives of many working- and lower-middle-class men, in his case unredeemed by the satisfactions of love and domesticity. Albert’s repressed and obsessive personality is difficult for a modern audience to empathise with, and it is a testament to Close’s acting skills that we do appreciate his interior life. In Hubert, the figure of the trickster passing woman morphs into the contemporary charming butch. Albert Nobbs, the cross-dresser of literary fiction, meets his earthy popular-culture counterpart in this historical drama, and there is little doubt about who wins the day.
Alison Oram is professor in social and cultural history at Leeds Metropolitan University. She is author of Her Husband was a Woman! Women’s Gender-crossing in Modern British Popular Culture (2007).