D.H. Lawrence and Gilbert Noon

Michael Black

The whole text of Mr Noon has now been published for the first time, as a volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence.[*] It is an unfinished novel of 292 pages, of which only the first 93 have previously been printed. Lawrence wrote the book between May 1920, when he had just finished The Lost Girl, and some time in 1921. He gave up working on Mr Noon in order to dash off the travel book Sea and Sardinia, and was at the same time writing Aaron’s Rod. He had trouble finishing both the novels: Aaron’s Rod did get finished, but Mr Noon did not. Its first part was long enough to be treated as a novella, and was published as such in A Modern Lover in 1934. It attracted little attention. This part has since 1968 been available in the collected volume Phoenix II, but I think it has not been much read. Without its continuation people hardly knew what to make of it. As a member of the Editorial Board of the Cambridge Edition I cannot in the ordinary way review the volume. But I have the advantage of having lived with the text for longer than the reviewers, and offer this first attempt at a critical essay on the whole novel. It may usefully supplement Dr Lindeth Vasey’s expert introduction to the text which she has established and annotated in the form now standard in the Cambridge edition.

With an unfamiliar text, some background and even a straightforward plot-summary may be helpful. The Mr Noon of the title is a 26-year-old teacher of mathematics and would-be composer, at a technical school in Nottinghamshire. The time at which the events take place is not stated, but Lawrence, writing in 1920, refers to it as before the war. The reader who knows Lawrence’s own circumstances quickly realises that he is writing about his own generation in his home district, in 1912. The ‘Woodhouse’ in which early scenes take place is the Woodhouse of The Lost Girl, and is based on Eastwood. Gilbert Noon’s father has a small business and some money, so does not share Lawrence’s family background. Like the gamekeeper Annable in The White Peacock, Noon has been to Cambridge and done well, but has chosen not to go on with an academic career or a life as a déclassé intellectual. Yet he is out of place, working at home. Like Aaron Sisson in Aaron’s Rod, he has a musical gift; unlike Aaron, he has not yet settled down into an ordinary petty-bourgeois marriage. But he is in danger of doing so. Single, and sexually active, he takes part with the other young people of the district in the courtship and mating rituals which lead, willingly or not, to the married state in which Gilbert, like Aaron, is likely to feel blocked and negated.

The upshot of the first part of the novel is that Gilbert Noon is very nearly trapped into such a marriage, by the classic alternative route of getting a girl into trouble, so finding that social pressures produce an acceleration of the normal route. It quickly occurs to the reader familiar with the background that Gilbert Noon has the initials of George Neville, who was a constituent, rather bounderish, part of Leslie Tempest in The White Peacock. Neville was a year younger than Lawrence, like him went to Nottingham Grammar School, and became a teacher. Like Gilbert Noon, he got a girl into trouble, and did it to more than one. In March 1912 Lawrence stayed for the last time with Neville, who had recently married the mother of his son, having failed to marry the mother of a previous son. Lawrence himself had just met Frieda Weekley, and was to elope with her two months later. He learned from Neville that he had been in trouble with his school because of the scandal.

It is recorded by Jessie Chambers that Lawrence had been deeply shocked by Neville’s first escapade five years earlier. He startled her by bursting out: ‘Thank God ... I’ve been saved from that ... so far.’ This is interpreted as meaning that he was a wise (or anxious) virgin, remaining so until he was 23. But nothing in his writing suggests he was glad of it. What he had been saved from was not sex, but sex as entrapment, and he saw Neville finally trapped. By 1920 he could look back on this in a sardonic spirit, and he did so in Mr Noon.

Part One is an extended sharp inquiry into one whole aspect of the England in which Noon, and Lawrence, refused to settle down. Especially it is an inspection, and a dismissal, of conventional marriage, of the run-down tradition of romantic love which Lawrence calls ‘lovey-doveyness’; of the rituals, here represented by ‘spooning’, which lead up to marriage; of the consequences of going too far in spooning; and of the later settled-down respectability summed up by the Sunday joint and the weekend doing the garden. Lawrence is not impressed, either, by the intellectual partnership of consciously liberated progressives which seems the only alternative to the bourgeois norm.

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[*] Cambridge, 416 pp., £12.95, 13 September, 0 521 25251 2. The two previous volumes in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence series are The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, edited by John Worthen, 303 pp., £25, 25 August 1983, 0 521 24822 1 and The White Peacock, edited by Andrew Robertson, 451 pp., £27.50, 20 October 1983, 0 521 22267 2.