A novelist has his winners in the stable, but what happens to those that go lame and never finish the course? There is the semi-mystery of a short novel, Mr Noon, which D.H. Lawrence began in 1920 following The Lost Girl, The White Peacock, The Rainbow, and Sons and Lovers: it seems he was alternating with work on Aaron’s Rod. But Mr Noon was put aside by Lawrence or rejected by publishers and was not published until 1934, four years after his death, in a left-over collection of stories called A Modern Lover and, in 1968, in the collection of other pieces in Phoenix II.
No great mystery so far. But Frieda Lawrence was sure she had seen the manuscript of a second part to the Noon story, which Lawrence thought of calling “Lucky Noon.” And indeed she had. It seems that Lawrence’s American publisher had passed the manuscript and typescript of this second part to a nephew in payment of a debt and that they were sold to one Urling Iselin in 1936. They remained in that family’s possession until purchased at auction by the University of Texas. For fifty years Mr Noon (part two) was unknown. Hard luck on Lawrence: he had written Mr Noon when he was desperately short of money.
Noon is an unpromising name: there is a suggestion of No One—the Mister kills the suggestion of an invention. We are in for perhaps a pastiche of the sentimental comedy of “a little man,” a story that might have been done more competently by best-selling realists like Arnold Bennett or H.G. Wells in the Twenties. (Lawrence disliked the condescending realism of Bennett’s provincial novels.) He saw Mr Noon as a popular money-making serial, dwelling on “Life’s little ironies” and possibly running to three parts. But publishers were frightened of him by now. The Rainbow had been suppressed in 1915 under the British obscenity laws of the time; he was liable to write the unprintable sentence about sex and love. Even in Mr Noon (part one) he felt the call to introduce a jaunty set piece on “spooning” and cuddling in provincial back alleys or in allotment gardens after chapel on moonless Sunday nights: girls known to be hot on “spooning” sometimes got pregnant or said they were, young men were “caught” and had either to marry them or to go to ingenious lengths to avoid the trap. The chapel did not forgive.
In fact Mr. Noon was lucky: his girl was a collector of engagement rings, and although he was marked down as her seducer by her raging father and lost his job as a schoolteacher, she did not choose him. She opted for a respectable bank clerk who, she said, was one of nature’s born husbands. She rejected the clever boy of the town, a mathematician who had won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge (no less), and whose German was good. So Mr. Noon was set free for a life larger than that of a provincial town which produced no more than one or two socialists and a kindly couple of mild atheists who were on his side. There was nothing wrong with “spooning” (they said); what was needed was the State Endowment of Motherhood for pregnant girls—a view of no interest to Lawrence, but a subject a publisher might think risky in a writer of Lawrence’s reputation.
When at last Mr Noon (part one) was published in 1934 one or two critics still thought the chapter on “spooning” was offensive (because “low”) and the rest only mildly amusing. Papers like The New Statesman and The Spectator ignored the book. Other technical experts attacked the author for bobbing up sarcastically in personal interventions in the narrative; for sneering at the “gentle reader” and breaking into attacks on his public, his critics, and the judge who had ruled The Rainbow to be obscene.
In fact Lawrence’s jaunty interventions give the book a nice, even traditional, satirical ring. The personal sardonic voice would become a forceful and natural characteristic of his later work; for him it also had the merit of enabling him to get round his impatience with the confusing difficulties of continuous narrative. A novelist must know the trick of turning his deficiencies as a narrator into a virtue—see Tristram Shandy. On the other hand, Lawrence’s highly egotistical personal interventions in Mr Noon do run into the danger of creating something like the condescension he hated in Arnold Bennett’s writing.
The real merit of Mr Noon springs from Lawrence’s ear for the halfhearted local cliches, the mechanical repetitions, the floggings of the dead horse, and the lame proverbs and local images of family dialogue in this gray period of English life:
“Poor Emmie. And she’s such a gay young thing by nature,” said Patty.
“Oh, she’s full of life. But a wilful young madam, and can be snappy enough with the children. I’ve said to her many a time, you’re like your Dad, you keep your smiles in the crown of your hat, and only put’em on when you’re going out. She can be a cat, I tell you, at home. She makes her father worse than he would be.”
“I suppose she does,” said Patty.
“Oh, he gets fair wild, and then tries to blame me. I say to him, she’s your daughter, I didn’t whistle her out o’ th’ moon. He’s not bad, you know, if you let him be. He wants managing, then he’s all right. Men doesn’t have to be told too much, and it’s no good standing up to them…if you answer him back, it’s like pouring paraffin to put a fire out.”
Suddenly Lawrence can’t stand any more of Emmie and the lower middle class. He loses his temper and brings the tale to an end. He hates his story.
Oh Deus ex machina, get up steam and come to our assistance…. Let them go to hell….
As for Mr Noon! Ah, Mr Noon!… There is a second volume…in pickle. The cow in this vol. having jumped over the moon, in the next the dish, dear reader, shall run away with the spoon. Scandalous the elopement, and a decree nisi for the fork. Which is something to look forward to.
In part two Mr. Noon takes a leap out of Eakrast. He is no longer a mere Mister; he becomes Gilbert. He has defied the chapelgoers, even the lazy socialist atheists and the local education committee. He becomes D.H. Lawrence who has run off with Frieda, has left the gray English Midlands and is in Munich, arguing with a jolly German professor about Goethe. He is Lawrence and “un-Englished,” experiencing the mind-opening “manyness” of Europe. He meets Frieda–Johanna’s aristocratic family. Frieda gets him to bed at once. He is the traveler and lover, traveling rough with the young woman who has left her husband and children. He is a poet apostrophizing sensual desire, “the thunder-god,” but not, by the way, the god of “your messy little feelings and licentiousnesses.” He is the Puritan set free.
The gentle reader is still addressed and preached at but not slapped down. The traveler detects something of ancient Rome in Germany. On the other hand, he is affronted by German militarism, “a strange insulting vein” in German “goodness.” The “thunder-god” of desire is not genteel or domestic; he is the god who lives for the battle of opposites. Little Emmie was a sly and trite little thing; Johanna fights in the open though she frets about her children. Eight years after the elopement Lawrence is remembering in vivid detail the central passion and adventure of his life. The serial was clearly bursting its bonds.
The lyrical Lawrence reappears: he is delighting in momentous and delightful landscape, in skies, flowers, animals, in the things he is so good at, such as evoking the forest by catching the sight of a young deer leaping, light as air, into the trees:
Gilbert suddenly found himself almost transportedly happy. It was a god-world: but strange northern gods. Nay, it was so wonderful, crystal, high, and gentian-flowered! Was it not almost superhuman? It went to the soul like a god-madness.
The river flowed full and swift, white-green, hissing from the glaciers. The flat meadows from Schaeftlarn to Maierhof were a miracle: deep, waist-deep in flowers, where the pale-gold spheres of the great ranunculus floated like marvellous bubbles, lovely, heaven-pale globe-flowers. It was hard not to believe in the old, white-skinned muscular gods, whom Wagner travestied. Surely Siegfried tramped through such spring meadows, breaking the god-blond globe-flowers against his fierce, naked knees. Surely for him the birch-trees shook their luminous green fleece in heaven, poised on a trunk-beam of icy light.
The notes of repetition and incantation may not be great prose but one sees the sick preacher released by the physical delight of his journeys. Yet he can see himself as a stiffish figure of comedy and without rancor or self-pity. He is still the Puritan, but in the man-woman argument the duel is not furtive; it is all fresh and alive even when it is absurd. A novel? Not even a novelized travel book, although the excellent minor characters—Frieda’s parents and relations—are fine miniatures in his memory. This is autobiography, the experience out of which shapely things like “The Prussian Officer,” Look! We Have Come Through!, Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, and that fine wrangle in “The Captain’s Doll” about the male’s fight against submission to the mother-woman, have already emerged. In 1921, he is scotching his miseries during the war. In 1922 he says goodbye to Europe.
Why was Mr Noon (part two) dropped? We have to turn to Lindeth Vasey’s excellent and patient detective work in the introduction to this volume of the Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s work. Lawrence was one of those spontaneous novelists who leap at their theme and write fast—again, a traveler through prose, not sure of his destination, trusting to instinct and obsession—and then suddenly coming to a stop. He puts the thing aside and starts something else. Another stop. He goes back to his earlier start, amends, and rewrites. But he is always writing. If the serial won’t be a moneymaker, if frightened publishers are still hemming and hawing—as they did for years—over a great novel like Women in Love he will turn to the Studies in Classic American Literature or a history textbook for schools, to short stories or to poems.
He seems always to have been less prone to frustration in his short stories, even when they are longish. There his voice is decisive. A short-story writer depends far more than a novelist does on his distinctive carrying voice. A story is a song, a ballad, an outburst; it can be an abrupt feat of Irony. It loses nothing—because it is itself a beginning, an invocation, uninjured by an open end. If the writer has his preaching streak, as Lawrence had, the short story stops the preacher from going on and on. But in the novel, Lawrence, the perpetual egotist and auto-biographer, has the usual trouble: you think you have finished and discover to your surprise that your life is still going on, not simply into a new future, but in revisions of its own past.
Lawrence had a wretched time with his poverty and his ill health. He had the despotic nature of the invalid and the feverishness of the poet. All the time he is fighting his angry way through his life, changing his rhetoric, repetitive but never anonymous. The second half of Mr Noon is an interesting curiosity: it is the recollection of a turning point. Characteristically the book was dropped because he was on the move again, this time to Ceylon, Australia, to Mexico on what has been rightly called his “savage pilgrimage.” We forget his hectoring, respond to his irony, and above all to his eye and ear for moments in that first taste of freedom. Mr Noon (part two) was still vivid in his memory. If he had waited longer than eight years, the narrative would have blurred.
October 25, 1984