Noakes was born Vivien Langley, the daughter of a noted aeronautical engineer, Marcus Langley. She was educated at Dunottar School, but left with A-levels, and it was not until later in life that she took her degree at Manchester College, Oxford, and Somerville College, Oxford, where she was subsequently lecturer. She also lectured at Harvard University and the Yale Center for British Art. She was an expert on Edward Lear and on the literature of World War I.
She died of cancer the day after her 74th birthday, a month after suffering a stroke.
- Edward Lear, The Life of a Wanderer (1968)
- Edward Lear, 1812-1888 (1988)
- The Painter Edward Lear (1991)
- The Daily Life of The Queen: An Artist's Diary (2000) with Michael Noakes.