I first came across the name Albert Nobbs when I read a newspaper report in late 2010 about Glenn Close shooting a film in Dublin with that title. The fleeting mention of the film being based on a short story by George Moore led me to seek out a copy, which I eventually located in this excellent collection edited by William Trevor. Now I must confess that depite having studied English literature I had avoided Moore’s work, having decided for some reason that it was old hat. Evidently this is a prejudice that has been around for some time; it was Ford Madox Ford who commented: “In an infinite number of reviews and comptes rendus of the literature of the world that I have read – and written – George Moore is almost invariably forgotten.”
After reading “Albert Nobbs” I realised how mistaken I had been about Moore. While his style is more traditional than that of James Joyce in Dubliners (published three years earlier, in 1914), there is nothing conventional about his subject-matter. This is the story of a woman in nineteenth-century Dublin who reinvents herself as a man so that she can secure a job as a hotel waiter. Her ambition is to start her own business and settle down; however complications ensue when she sets her heart on marriage, as her intended is a chambermaid called Helen Dawes.
To say more about the plot would risk spoiling the effect of reading this very singular, novella-length tale. The novelist John Banville, who collaborated with Glenn Close on the screenplay of the film, rightly describes it as “a very strange, very peculiar story” in this recent RTE radio documentary about Moore, but goes on to say that “it’s terribly moving, terribly affecting, not sentimental in any way”. Elsewhere Adrian Frazier, Moore’s biographer, has described it as “a little-known masterpiece of the short story”.
I am pleased to have discovered Moore’s work at last, and to have had the opportunity to make ‘Albert Nobbs’ available to readers in digital form for the first time. This is just the start for Swift Editions, and there may be another offering from George Moore in due course.