Throughout history, there have been women who have lived as men either because of gender identification and/or for safety and opportunity as soldiers, pirates and doctors, for example. (This includes James Barry, an 18th century surgeon who became the Inspector General for military hospitals.)
In this fine movie, Glenn Close plays Albert Nobbs, a timid, asexual person, a sad little man (or woman) who is a waiter in a posh hotel in the 1890s. Albert encounters Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who is bigger physically and stouter of heart, living as a man externally and happy domestically in a lesbian relationship. Their encounter sets in motion a series of events that speaks to gender and life as a woman…or man subjected to social definitions and the violation and humiliation that enforce them. How to react? Shrinking, hiding, transforming, re-enacting, departing, being bold, being shy, always secretive.
What interested me most about the movie is that it’s based on a short story written by George Moore and first published about 1918. I was struck both by the date (end of WWI and several generations earlier than the most recent incarnation of gender studies) and the author.
I know him as the author of Esther Waters, a neglected and wonderful novel written in the 1890s about a single, working-class mother. So I was interested to learn about his ongoing personal and literary interest in gender identity and sexuality. Now I’m very curious to read the collection in which the original story, “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” appeared.
In the meantime I can recommend this thought provoking article about sex and gender in Albert Nobbs. I also recommend the DVD!