Under-rated heroes and forgotten wives

Holst family word cloud

Happy anniversary, Gustav and Isobel Holst

A guest post by author Philippa Tudor

Fame and fleeting, modest fortune

Aspiring but not-yet-famous composer Gustav von Holst and Isobel Harrison were married on 22 June 1901. It was a quiet wedding in Fulham Register Office (a former workhouse), witnessed by Isobel’s brother and Gustav’s aunt, who had helped bring him and his brother up following his mother’s early death. They spent the first years of married life living in two rented rooms above a shop in Shepherd’s Bush. The first surviving photo of the happy couple was taken two years later, when they could afford a working honeymoon in Germany. Despite the ups and downs of their life together, including Gustav’s fame and fleeting modest fortune following in the early 1920s, it was Isobel who was lovingly at Gustav’s side when he died at the early age of 59 in 1934.

Gustav and Isobel - the young couple on holiday

Taken for granted

Why does any of this matter, when the most important thing is Gustav’s lasting legacy in his musical compositions and his work as a teacher, where his influence is so great that many of his practices are now taken for granted as the norm? Gustav and Isobel were born in the Victorian era, where society’s expectations of the role of wives was such that historians have largely ignored it. To use Professor Ann Oakley’s expression, Isobel Holst, like many others, became “Forgotten wives”. Isobel’s role in supporting her composer husband, born without even a small silver spoon in his mouth (unlike his best friend and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) was usually behind the scenes. But to ignore it almost completely is surely wrong. It is also not what Gustav himself did, writing to Isobel in 1929: “I don’t see why you shouldn’t have some of the honour and glory.”

Gustav and Isobel at Ann Arbor, USA

Gustav struggled with his physical, and often his mental, health throughout his life. Isobel’s Times obituary recorded that she had been “kind and generous”, and “brought into his life grace and ease and comfort”. She also brought joy into the life of the composer of “Jupiter – the bringer of jollity”.

Why not celebrate the anniversary with these splendid books about Gustav and Isobel…

‘Mrs Gustav Holst: an equal partner?’ by Philippa Tudor

She volunteered in both World Wars, driving ambulances in the first, and enjoyed many friendships, including with Gustav’s best friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. Gustav Holst only briefly used an agent so she acted for him at times, as well as working for the whole family’s well being. Who was she? What did she seek in life? “I am amazed at all the new work – truly wonderful!” – Holst Scholar Raymond Head Buy ‘Mrs Gustav Holst’ direct from the publisher, post-free to UK addresses


‘Gustav Holst: the Man and his Music’ by Michael Short

Features additional material including records from Morley College, writings about Holst by his friend Vaughan Williams and additional illustrations. “It’s the only thing of its kind, and so indispensable” – Julian Rushton, Emeritus Professor of Music, University of Leeds, Chair, Muscia Britannica “A treasure house of information, an absolutely indispensable guide” – Tony Palmer, film-maker Buy ‘Gustav Holst’ direct from the publisher, post free to UK addresses


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: