Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Framing the Body: George Moore's "Albert Nobbs" and the Disappearing Realist Subject

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Framing the Body: George Moore's "Albert Nobbs" and the Disappearing Realist Subject

Article excerpt

As the autobiographical narrator of his 1918 A Story-Teller's Holiday, George Moore responds to the request of his fictional interlocutor for a specifically Irish story: "the story I'd be telling you", the narrator says, "is Irish only because it all happened in Morrison's hotel".1 Although the Dublin setting is inconsequential to the events of his tale, it nevertheless introduces the person of Albert Nobbs as a memory from the narrator's visits to the hotel and consequently initiates one of the many masculine narrative frames in which Moore encloses Albert's story. As Albert, a woman who lives as a male hotel waiter in mid-nineteenth century Dublin, finds herself sequestered by geographical and architectural enclosures, so Moore's narrative framing encloses her within ever-expanding concentric circles of discourse that lead from the inner world of the story's setting to the outermost circle of Moore's intended (as distinct from implied) readership. The elaborate meta-narrative Moore designs causes the primary subject of realist fiction, the body, to disappear except as a creation of discourse. However, the outer reaches of Moore's screen nevertheless locate his ambiguously gendered subject within a lived world that demands an ethical response from author and reader.

"Albert Nobbs", A Story-Teller's Holiday, and the rejection of Realism

The story first appeared as one of many tales incorporated into A Story-Teller's Holiday. In this unusual mixture of memoir, fiction, folk legend, and fantasy, Moore employs his autobiographical persona, George Moore, whose origins at Moore Hall, County Mayo, early life among the painters and poets of Montmartre, and long - and controversial - literary career is presumed to be familiar to his readers. Having finally settled in London in 1911, he returns to Ireland for a visit soon after the Easter Rising and, having explored the ruins of the insurrection and considered writing his impressions of the scene, leaves for the west of Ireland. There he encounters the local traditional storyteller, Alec Trussleby. The two men begin to exchange tales. Most concern the bawdy adventures of clerics and nuns in early Christian Ireland, but "Albert Nobbs" presents a nineteenth-century urban setting and an approach to narrative more akin to the Modernist experiments of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford than to Alec's folktales.2 Although its language and setting greatly differ from that of the other stories, this final addition to the collection reinforces Moore's overall concern with the devastating effects of sexual repression and the difficulties of telling and hearing stories that fall outside the domain of regulated behaviour.

George Moore had long been fascinated by the varieties of gender identity and sexual behaviour. His own sexuality was itself highly complicated, and while he viewed the sexual lives of others with curiosity, and at times amusement, he was most often empathetic, while lamenting what he believed to be the unnecessary and destructive suppression of the sexual impulse and the equally disturbing exploitation of women.3 By 1918, he had been writing about variant sexual behaviour, both autobiographical and fictional, for nearly forty years. His 1895 Celibates offered a series of short stories about individuals who, for different social and psychological reasons, reject sexual interactions with others. In 1922, he published another collection on the subject, In Single Strictness, and five years later excerpted "Albert Nobbs" from its original context to include it in his final collection of stories, Celibate Lives. Since then, the story has been reprinted in several anthologies of British and Irish short fiction, translated into at least two languages, and in 1972, adapted for the stage by the French feminist playwright Simone Benmussa. Her stage play also forms the basis of Rodrigo Garcia's 2011 film adaptation. Benmussa's play has been frequently produced and much praised for its ability to transpose into theatrical terms the process by which an individual of indeterminate gender and sexual identity becomes an unknowable subject created by the patriarchal discourse in which she is described and discussed. …

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