Mr Noon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The discovery and issue of a previously unpublished novel by D. H. Lawrence is an event. Lawrence’s position among the giants of twentieth century English literature has long been secure, but fully to appreciate the significance of this publication, now meticulously edited by Lindeth Vasey in a volume of the definitive Cambridge Edition of the Works, it is necessary to qualify some terms. Mr Noon (note that Lawrence left out the period to signal an abbreviation of “Mr.”) has, at least in part, already been known to readers since 1934, when a story of the same title was originally published in the collection A Modern Lover, then included in the volume of miscellany titled Phoenix II (1968). That story, altered very slightly from the 1934/1968 version on the basis of editorial collation of the texts from an autograph manuscript and typescript copies revised by Lawrence, remains part 1 of this book.

The existence of a second part of Mr Noon has also been known to a much smaller group of Lawrence scholars through the writer’s mention of his progress on the manuscript. In letters to his American publisher Thomas Seltzer, for example, as well as to his literary agent Curtis Brown and to his typist Ruth Wheelock, Lawrence left a tantalizing series of tracks for specialists to hunt down—but where was the manuscript itself? Had it disappeared? By October 6, 1922, approximately two years after he had begun the project, Lawrence stopped referring to Mr Noon. Thereafter, as Vasey puts it, the traces for part 2 had “effectively disappeared for fifty years.” Not until October 31, 1972, was the manuscript of Mr Noon, together with a typescript copy and a carbon copy of part 2, auctioned by Sotheby Parke Bernet and purchased by the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas (Austin). At that point, scholars could assemble parts of the present volume.

Two questions remain: Is Mr Noon indeed a novel? And is this indeed the book that Lawrence had intended to publish? Certainly the volume has the length and structural complexity of a novel—or rather of two distinct novellas. Although the central character, Gilbert Noon, appears in both parts, he is clearly a different personality in each. In part 1, Noon is a feckless lover, a character resembling such weak, self-conscious, sexually unassertive types as Cyril Mersham in “A Modern Lover,” Edward Severn in “The Old Adam,” or Bernard Coutts in “The Witch à la mode”—all stories from the 1934 collection. Like these deficient males, the first Gilbert Noon is attracted to a “fatal” woman who teases him, ignites his passion, but who cannot bring him to the point of asserting his virility. More vigorously than these typically weak types, the first Mr Noon pursues several acquiescent young women who submit to his spooning and caresses but who deny him sexual release. To be sure, he is quite satisfied with the coquettish liberties that they offer—chief of which is the prolonged kissing-and-cuddling rite of courtship that Lawrence describes (in chapter 2) as spooning. By the end of part 1, the tepid Mr Noon almost falls into his own amorous trap by winning the heart of Emma Grace (“Emmie”) Bostock, but he is saved at the end from a committed relationship when Emmie’s faithful but equally doltish admirer, Walter George Wiffen, proposes marriage to the girl. Lawrence concludes this trivial tale of flirtation and its consequences with a comic-ironic postscript: “Gentle reader, this is the end of Mr Noon and Emmie. If you really must know, Emmie married Walter George, who reared prize cauliflowers, whilst she reared dear little Georgian children, and all went happy ever after.”

Lawrence’s novel (or pair of novellas), however, does not truly end at page 93 of the text. The author warns the reader: “As for Mr Noon! Ah, Mr Noon! There is a second volume in store for you, dear reader. Pray heaven there may not be a third.” In part 2, one continues to learn about the adventures of Gilbert Noon, but he is not at all the personality whom the reader remembers from the first section. This Mr Noon merges very quickly with chapter 13 into the persona of D. H. Lawrence, and the novella itself becomes a slightly fictionalized autobiography that might be understood as a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Lover. After Noon awakens the next morning in Munich, Germany, he resembles the Lawrence of May, 1912, a former teacher from Croyden who had recently met Mrs. Frieda Weekley, the wife of his French professor a few months earlier, in March. Also in March, he had attended the wedding of George Henry Neville, the model for the first Mr Noon (just as Emmie is probably modeled after Sarah Ethel Giddens,...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)