Monday, 29 November 2010

‘A locked door of which she had thrown away the key’

In 2007, we published the highly acclaimed Imogen Holst: a Life in Music, the first full-length treatment of the life and music of one of the most fascinating and influential English musicians of the twentieth century. The book was intended as a celebration both of its subject’s centenary, and of the eightieth birthday of Rosamund Strode, Imo’s great friend and her successor as Benjamin Britten’s music assistant in Aldeburgh. Three years later the discovery of much new material has prompted the issue of a new revised edition that is able to explore more fully the creative and emotional development of this much-loved character, who for all her friendliness and charm, would in her later years dismiss talk of her past in a manner that reminded Rosamund of ‘a locked door of which she had thrown away the key’. What we now know is that the key was never thrown away, only hidden, and that, moreover, its owner was far from clear in her own mind about whether or not she really wanted somebody to find it and unlock the door. Christopher Grogan explains:

The newly discovered materials came to light in the aftermath of the decision by the Holst Foundation in 2008 to gift Imo’s remaining archive to its sister organisation in Aldeburgh, the Britten-Pears Foundation. What followed was a thorough sorting through wardrobes, boxes under beds, cupboards and filing cabinets to reveal a goldmine of documentation – unsorted and uncatalogued – relating to Imo’s life and covering all periods of her career. The discoveries included correspondence, travel journals and diaries and a wide range of ephemera; more intimately there were also examples of Imo’s early enthusiasm as an artist, two books of poetry written during her teens, and a wallet of nude photographs of herself, taken in 1931.

In her own treatment of these papers, Imo reveals herself as profoundly ambivalent about the possibility of any future interest in her life and career. Although to friends such as Rosamund (who knew her better than anybody) she repelled questions about her past, she kept all the materials that would one day provide a biographer with the route into her intimate thoughts and feelings. Towards the end of her life she went a step further and wrote out entries from her old engagement diaries into a series of exercise books, thereby mapping the days of her life in a way that suggests that she was thinking about either writing her own autobiography, or preparing the ground for a later biography. Most illuminatingly she wrote on the cover of one travel journal that it should be thrown away as being too old to be of any use. Significantly, however, she didn’t perform the act herself (which would have taken less time than writing the note on the cover), thereby dangling the journal in front of posterity and inviting those who were to come after to make the final decision about its worth. It is not surprising that this particular journal – covering the winter of 1928-9 – should record one of the happiest times of her life, when she enjoyed an Alpine holiday with the man she was then profoundly in love with, Miles Tomalin, a holiday that prompted her to write ‘Return’, one of a sequence of heartfelt love poems that light up Imo’s inner emotional journey through her late teens and early twenties:

After those days and nights of restless joy & agony,
Of vague desires, & uncertain hopes,
It is like drifting into a dreamless sleep,
A calm & deep peace, a long quietness,
To have your arms about me once again,
To feel your dear, familiar limbs pressed close
To mine: - your head lying on my breast.
To stroke your hair, & look into your eyes.
To laugh – so safe, & so secure at last.

The Imo that emerged from these newly discovered materials, and whose story is explored in the revised text, is a more complex, troubled and ultimately sympathetic figure than it was possible to present in the first edition. Raised by a loving but emotionally stilted (and frequently absent) father and a disinterested mother, she found the forging of close emotional connections painfully difficult, often falling hopelessly in love during her early years but never letting on, pouring out her desires and frustrations into her poetry instead. In Miles Tomalin she found a partner who allowed her to recreate her relationship with her father; the closer the two became the less able they were to express their feelings (both resorting once again to poetry to do this) and the relationship eventually foundered on their mutual inability to commit themselves emotionally. In the years that followed, Imo gave herself into relationships that were more physically intense but left her emotionally untouched, before the death of her father sent her spiralling into feelings of guilt and shame, ostensibly because she hadn’t offered to help him more in his professional life, but in reality because she had never been able to express or share the depth of her love for him.

Thus it was that she chose to dedicate her life to his memory and began to shut herself off from her own emotional fulfilment. On a visit to Santa Barbara in 1936, recorded in a diary not available when the first edition came out, she tearfully weighed up her options before coming to a final decision:

I decided that this was obviously the place to live, and that the sensible thing to do would be to earn a lot of money writing music for the films and then retire to Santa Barbara with a small house, a large garden, a select library and a lover. (The last being essential in such a climate.) After ten minutes reflection, however, came to the conclusion that Primrose Hill and celibacy would be more satisfying for any length of time … I was in the depths of gloom by the time E. [her uncle Ernest Cossart] rescued me with the mention of food.

This decision was to inform Imo’s creative journey over the next half-century, laying the foundations on which she was to build her achievements, but also affecting profoundly her approach to relationships, appearance and lifestyle. Moreover it puts into context the shattering emotional impact of her falling in love with Britten, fifteen years after her Santa Barbara decision and at a time when she believed she had put such things behind her. With Imo’s early life and emotional journey now so much better understood, her infatuation with the composer no longer comes out of the blue, but can be understood as a complex reliving of her teenage crushes, repeating the dynamic of her relationships with both her father and Miles Tomalin. In the wake of all this turbulence, it now seems much less surprising that this most self-effacing of creative musicians should finally decide to dedicate her whole existence to opening out the genius of Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, whilst locking away her own past and hiding the key.

The revised and updated edition of Imogen Holst: A Life in Music by Christopher Grogan is available now in paperback.

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