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.

This other possibility is presented in the opening scene: Lewie and Patty Goddard, a middle-aged couple based on the Hopkinses of Eastwood, are the local intellectuals. They read the New Statesman, wear homespun, have left religion behind them, are good companions and intellectually superior to their neighbours. This gets them nowhere much: Patty is conscious enough to be obscurely dissatisfied. Lawrence, with his sniper’s eye, picks off their little pretensions with deadly economy. Gilbert Noon drops in on them because, on this Sunday evening, he is waiting for Chapel to end. To Patty’s concerned disapproval and Lewie’s slightly leering amusement, he is going to meet Emmy Bostock, also a teacher, who sings in the choir, and who after chapel, as noted ‘sport’, will go off with Gilbert, a no less noted ‘spooner’. In the darkness of the entry to the Coop yard, they will ‘spoon’ – a matter of spinning out with artistry the process of going so far and no further. The novel is interspersed with mocking apostrophes and addresses to the gentle reader. The first of these, Lawrence’s virtuoso cadenza on ‘spooning’, is oddly prophetic of his metaphoric excursuses on intercourse in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, except that it is subversive of its theme. Having taken Emmy home, Gilbert then ‘goes too far’ in the greenhouse; is interrupted by Emmy’s Dickensian father, but escapes. When Mr Bostock discovers who the seducer is, he sends a letter to the school managers. In a brilliantly comic scene which borrows its imagery from Kingsley’s Water Babies, Noon, challenged to deny the charge, resigns his post. His conversations with Patty Goddard show that she is potentially interested in him, and there briefly arises the altogether different, more interesting possibility of an affair with this mature woman dissatisfied with the other kind of conventional marriage. Yet this, too, is comically deflated by an accident: their outdoor idyll is interrupted by a charging heifer just as Patty and Noon both glimpse her potential as ‘a soft, full strange unmated Aphrodite’.

Emmy Bostock has long before taken the precaution of being engaged to a mild young bank-clerk, Walter George Whiffen. Harassed by her vengeful father, she flees to relatives in another village and takes to her bed with ‘neuralgia of the stomach’. Is she pregnant? Walter George, appealed to, appears consolingly at the bedside, offering lovey-doveyness. So, in mere inquiry, does Gilbert Noon. For a difficult hour or so the ingenious Emmy, who is fundamentally very shrewd, and quite determined to come out married to someone, is hard put to manage the situation. Part One ends with a sort of tableau: Emmy in bed; two gallants at the bedside (one less gallant than the other), and supporting relatives.

Lawrence simply solves the problem by authorial fiat. We are flatly told that the situation is resolved: Emmy marries Walter George, and settles down to Sunday lunches and raising cauliflowers in the kitchen garden. A little Emmy-child, nicely dressed, is glimpsed in Part Two accompanied by a smart married Emmy, and this is either Walter George’s child or Gilbert Noon’s, but she has Walter’s name. A process has been completed; a marriage results; the system is seen to operate; and the proprieties have been observed – but it was a near thing.

The relationship with Part Two is principally one of total contrast: between what Noon escapes in Part One and the precarious but precious thing he wins in Part Two. But there is also an essential link between the parts, announced in the conversations he has with Patty Goddard. She appears to be contentedly married – but something is getting on her nerves. From this ‘unquiet unison’ she takes her interest in Noon, and from her position of maturity she both states the normal social viewpoint and checks his unrealism. From his responses to Patty – their energy, even their grimness – we realise that Noon is not Neville at all. He is not going to settle, as Neville finally did, for the social solution; and he is looking for something that Neville couldn’t conceive. In that, he is like Lawrence.

He feels that, spooning in Woodhouse, he is ‘in a ready-made circumstance going through a ready-made act, and ... thoroughly annoyed with everything’. He won’t therefore accept moral blackmail, or even basic responsibility. ‘I didn’t invent the problem,’ he says; he won’t accept the normal solution even if the refusal bears hard on the woman. Patty has her own theories about that problem: she wants the state to support motherhood, and to remove the stigma of bastardy. Gilbert is comically disheartened at the suggestion that legislative engineering could provide an answer to his predicament, but he opens his mind to Patty on what he wants from a woman: one who ‘could stand on her own feet, not one who could cling to me. I shouldn’t mind, you know, what she did. If she liked another man, all right. We could be good pals. Oh, I should want a woman to do as she liked.’ Patty finds it easy to discount this over-theoretical liberationism: ‘what a difference there is between what you think now and what you’ll think afterwards.’ Lawrence himself simply says that Gilbert is ‘full of intellectual conceit’. He shows the conceit being educated in Part Two, not least in this matter of ‘liking another man’.

Part Two opens with some ostentatious gear-crashing, which readers may find awkward. We have to remember that this is an unfinished novel, and particularly that, for good or ill, it hasn’t been subjected to Lawrence’s usual repeated and drastic process of revision. For good, because that revision often produced turgidity, whereas Mr Noon is fresh, sparkling and uninhibited. For ill, because some things have survived which Lawrence would surely have altered – one can almost feel him saying: ‘Oh well, that will do for the moment; I’ll come back to it later.’ The transition between the parts is the most obvious place. It has suddenly struck him that the right thing to do with Noon is to give him the emotional education he had had himself. He must therefore get him away from Emmy’s bedside, and out of the England of 1912 which, in all Lawrence’s early fiction, threatens to stifle for ever the essential life of the characters. Think, for instance, of Paul Morel, who is left at the end of Sons and Lovers totally bereft, but walking towards – well, what? Like Alvina Houghton in The Lost Girl, like Aaron Sisson, Gilbert Noon has to get right out and become ‘unEnglished’, as Lawrence puts it. So he is transported as if by magic to Munich, where we find him waking up in the apartment of the prosperous academic Alfred Kramer whom he is vaguely assisting in research. And indeed, in Part One, having handed in his notice, he had told his father he was going to Germany, to take a doctorate.

Kramer is based on Edgar Jaffe, who married Frieda Weekley’s sister Else. We quickly meet Alfred’s wife Louise, who does not seem to live with him very much, and meet in her company Ludwig Sartorius, modelled on the great Alfred Weber. It is not stated, but can be inferred, that Louise and Sartorius are lovers, as Else Jaffe and Weber were. So Gilbert Noon observes a wife ‘liking’ another man, and the husband ‘being a good pal’. Indeed there is a great freedom in this family, which reminds us that German intellectuals have been liberated since the time of the Schlegels: to such a degree that it represents a recognised variant of social convention, or what Noon was dissatisfied with as a ‘ready-made circumstance’. So no help there.

There now appears another member of the family: Louise’s cousin, Mrs Johanna Keighley, born Baroness von Hebenitz, married to an American, and transparently modelled on Frieda Weekley, born Baroness von Richthofen. On the train which brought her to Munich Johanna had had a flirtation with an unknown passenger; and on her first meeting with Noon she invites him to bed with her. ‘ “Yes,” he said, and was surprised that his lungs had no breath.’ Noon comes quickly to feel that he is totally committed to her. It is some time before she feels an equal certainty: less because she has a husband and children than because she has a kind of theoretical universal commitment. She ‘took her sex as a religion’, Lawrence explains, and ‘felt herself bound to administer the cup of consolation’ to any deserving case. She also has an easy-going temperament, saying ‘Why not?’ where others would know why not (and perhaps be wrong).

Lawrence’s observation of Johanna is loving and amused, where his observation of Emmy Bostock, the pretty little man-trap, had been amused but devastating. This book of Lawrence’s is lightly-written where others are often intensely over-symbolical. So the important metaphors pass briefly and easily: only the unimportant ones are pursued in the witty passages of extended mockery. Johanna bears the essential marks of Lawrence’s grace: for instance, her face flashes with the light of the sun, or shines like a flower. She puts this comically herself by saying she is a born dandelion, while her husband wants her to be a white snow-flower. Here and elsewhere there are far-off echoes of the great turgid symbol-systems of The Rainbow and Women in Love, and the dualisms of Twilight in Italy (North and South, ice and sun, water and heat, the rainbow as synthesis of pure light and pure water, and so on). But they sail by naturally and conversationally, with an aptness and grace which is a merciful relief to anyone who has been labouring on the major texts.

The rest of Part Two is essentially a miraculously fresh and almost total recall of Lawrence’s and Frieda’s relationship between May and September 1912. It seems amazing that he should, eight years later, remember it in such vivid detail – but then it was the most important passage in his whole life, and one main source of his art and thought. Noon’s engagement with his Johanna has two forms: what they say to each other and what happens to them beyond words. There are set-piece discussions in which Noon – playing the part of Patty – opposes shrewd common-sense wisdom to Johanna’s enlightened conceptualism. She has learnt most of this from a former lover, Eberhard (modelled on Otto Gross, Freud’s pupil, for whom the phrase ‘spaced-out’ – indeed all the terms of the drug culture and hippiedom – might have been coined). So she thinks you can be ‘simple’ about everything, to which Noon dourly replies: ‘While you’ve got people, things will never be simple.’ She thinks ‘one should love all men’ and why should anyone be jealous? Noon replies that jealousy is as natural as love and laughter, and he wants exclusive physical love. One thing they do agree about: ‘I’m not going to be self-sacrificing,’ she says. Nor will he be, as he showed in Part One.

There is an important consequence of this. If you are not going to be self-sacrificing and others aren’t either, then the condition of life with people who are important to you is struggle, to which you are committed. This is the thing which is progressively revealed to Noon. What he wants is not a merely social marriage but a real one. This takes place when a man meets ‘his opposite, his complementary opposite, and his meet adversary’, and settles down to the necessary conflict. Johanna is that adversary for him, and the battle to which they are as if religiously committed is the struggle between naked selves in which the mature new person is born to each of them out of the old dried-up social self, now split open. This is what Lawrence calls ‘true, terrible marriage’: it is the important aspect of what happens to them, and lies below and beyond the words in which they offer their opinions.

The heart of Part Two, and of the whole book, is the pair of Chapters, Eighteen (‘The First Round’) and Nineteen (untitled). These recount the seismic upheavals in Gilbert Noon as he comes to birth in this sense. They are related to some of the best parts of The Rainbow (for instance, Will and Anna Brangwen’s early married days) and the great but neglected short story ‘New Eve and Old Adam’. An extraordinary thing about the writing is the degree to which Lawrence, reporting his own experience, treats himself as one of his characters, and, re-creating his violent opposition to Frieda, and hers to him, remains scrupulously fair to her. He apprehends in himself extraordinary states which lie far below ordinary words, but can return from them, bringing the words. One of these states is the one which we describe summarily as dependence. Lawrence can both convey the intensity of the experience, and come back to the surface with this judgment on it as self-observer:

He had had a shock: and his soul was desperate. It is a horrible thing for a man to realise, not so much in his mind as in his soul, that his very life, his very being depends upon his connection with another being. It is a terrible thing to realise that our soul’s sanity and integrity depends upon the adjustment of another individual to ourself: that if this individual, wantonly or by urgency break the adjustment and depart, the soul must bleed to death, not whole and not quite sane.

    This pretty piece of knowledge Gilbert realised in his clairvoyant depths. And it shook him profoundly at the time, so that he could not gather himself together, or come forth, or be free.

Just before the book breaks off (so that one can feel that the narrative has at any rate reached a significant point) Gilbert reaches a further important stage, and recognises it. The experience is the one movingly recounted by the nurse Mrs Bolton in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Thinking back to her dead miner-husband, whom she had loved, she says that what she remembers and treasures – what she most missed and would want to have restored in any heaven – was simply being in bed, warm, back to back, and feeling secure. ‘That was all I wanted, to feel him there with me, warm.’ Gilbert Noon reaches this state too: ‘something seemed to come loose in Gilbert’s soul, quite suddenly. Quite suddenly, in the night one night he touched Johanna as she lay asleep with her back to him, touching him, and something broke alive in his soul that had been dead before.’ Lawrence expands on this, in the style of address to the ‘gentle reader’ that is a persistent feature of the book, and it makes an apt enough conclusion. Gilbert Noon has reached at least an interim goal: he is effectively a married man. He has gone a long way round, suffering and causing suffering, to reach what on the surface looks almost like a conventional permanent relationship. But his refusal to do the first obvious thing, and the struggles and conflicts in the course of the second un-obvious one, are Lawrence’s equivalent of a religious quest, a rite of passage. The implication is that he and Johanna are reborn into a state which cannot be reached by any easy way.

The most remarkable thing about the novel is Lawrence’s entire detachment in giving this account of the central episode in his life. This has two aspects. The first, easy to admire, is a lucid lightness of touch, as in the descriptions of scenery. These are organic to the story: part of Gilbert’s un-Englishing is his exposure to and his thrilled reception of the newness and vastness of Europe. He feels himself to be at the centre, with the North above him and the warm South below. The enchanted period in the Tyrol, alone with Johanna for the first time, awakens him to the beauty of the springtime there. I could quote whole paragraphs, but must merely refer readers to those same chapters which also tell of the violent antagonisms. They are among the best things in Lawrence. There is a close parallel with some of the poems from Look! We have come through!, but it seems to me that the prose is consistently better than the verse.

More unsettling on a first reading, the curious light-heartedness also leads to several sorts of verbal firework: the addresses to the gentle reader; the apostrophisings (to spooning, to cauliflowers and Sunday dinner, to desire, to ‘uplift’ and so on). But they come to seem of a piece with the rest of the book. Addresses to the gentle reader typically went with the presentation of romantic love (‘Reader, I married him’ being the classic utterance). Lawrence enjoys turning that expectation upside down, and cheerfully rubbing it in for the discomfiture of the conventionally-minded. There is one passage of spoof-invective in which he explicitly makes this point:

But why the devil should I always gentle reader you? You’ve been gentle reader for this last two hundred years. Time you too had a change. Time you became rampageous reader, ferocious reader, surly, rabid reader ... all the ring-dove sonata you’ll get out of me you’ve got already, and for the rest you’ve got to hear the howl of tomcats like myself and she-cats like yourself, going it tooth and nail ... Make a ring then, readers, round Gilbert and Johanna.

The use of a comic code is less uncommon in Lawrence than most people think. Ironic dryness is his frequent manner in the later fiction (much of St Mawr, for instance). But in Mr Noon it is more exuberant and more varied. Some of the exuberance, I suggested earlier, might have been removed in revision – pruned back or toned down. But I don’t regret its survival. At its best, the manner produces gaiety: the contrast between the seriousness of the matter and the lightness of the manner reminds us of Nietzsche’s ideal, the gai saber. From this standpoint Lawrence can, for instance, treat his three principal women – Patty Goddard, Emmy Bostock, Johanna Keighley – with subtle variations of tone: delicately interested in Patty, mordant with Emmy, in love with Johanna even while he laughs at her. The portrait of the doughty old Baroness, Johanna’s mother, is as deft. Lawrence is delighted with her, even though she is against his hero.

Lawrence’s mixture of detachment and imaginative empathy is nowhere more remarkable than in the portrayal of Gilbert Noon. The two terms in ‘alter ego’ rarely have equal weight, but they do here. Lawrence can laugh at his Noon-self: more surprisingly he can be gentle. Most of all, he can treat him as him, other. This is most unexpectedly apt in the episode where Gilbert and Johanna, walking through the Alps to Lake Garda, are joined by two friends: Terry (based on David Garnett), and Stanley (Harold Hobson). At one point Johanna and Stanley are not to be found. Later, as Johanna and Gilbert go on alone, she explains that Stanley ‘had me in the hay-hut – he told me he wanted me so badly.’ Here Noon has to meet the challenge he had told Patty Goddard he could easily face (‘If she liked another man, all right’). Since then he has been well able to imagine Johanna’s husband’s frantic jealousy, which he knows is as natural as love or laughter. How will he respond? Somewhat to his surprise, and very much to Johanna’s, he manages an odd lofty forgiveness:

He dropped her knapsack and threw his arms around her. ‘Never mind, my love,’ he said. ‘Never mind. Never mind. We do things we don’t know we’re doing.’ And he kissed her and clung to her passionately in a sudden passion of self-annihilation. His soul opened, and he gave himself up. He rose above the new thrust on wings of death.

It’s not a bad effort, but a bit ridiculous all the same. And Lawrence shows this. ‘She felt rather caught-out by his passionate spiritual forgiveness: put in a falser position than ever.’

There is this symmetry with the end of Part One: Gilbert and Walter George, at Emmy’s bedside, are now replaced by Stanley and Gilbert with Johanna in the Alps. But now Gilbert has been done by as he did. If something is comic, it is comic even when it happens to D.H. Lawrence, and even in the most important events of his life. The remarkable thing about the book is that this lightheartedness lies side by side with the seriousness of the deeply understood conflicts in Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen, and the lucid veracity of the descriptions of the beauty and newness of the world that Gilbert and Johanna pass through, and the reality of the people they meet.

If my sequence of reactions is representative, readers will feel startled by the apparent discontinuity between the parts, and the jump from seeing Noon as Neville and seeing him as Lawrence. But the relationship between the parts is deliberate contrast: Noon’s un-Englishing is the archetypal exodus of Lawrence’s main characters. For the rest, one has to think hard about the relationship between Lawrence’s life and his art. Noon is neither Neville nor Lawrence, but one fictional character who is given the experiences of two real people. The other resistance is to the jokiness, the cheek, the excursuses and the parody-invocations. That, too, is deliberate, and can come to seem Lawrence’s deliberate insistence on using his own voice in a relationship with the reader which is meant to be disconcerting. The theorist’s question, ‘Who is speaking?’ can only be answered one way: the voice throughout the book is D.H. Lawrence’s, speaking spontaneously and directly, whether humorously or seriously. There is no suggestion of a voice from nowhere, or a narrator who is not the author. It is always him, speaking here of his own most important experience, yet managing to do this without the filter of normal egoism, as if he had direct access to the reality of his own life.

[*] 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.