- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Into the cold and glittering, highly critical and somewhat claustrophobic society of middle-class London came a diffident and delicate young woman who could play the piano, but was no virtuoso; sing, but probably had just a limited vocal range; write (or use) the kind of lyrics Victorian ladies loved to hear; compose pretty tunes for such lyrics; and — this was essential — comport herself as a lady should in society, for she came from an middle-class, though admittedly provincial, background.

Professionally, she called herself Claribel (from a character in one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems), and for a time, she was society’s darling. All doors were open to her. Then society rejected her utterly, which well may have destroyed whatever confidence she had. She died soon afterward.

During the first year of the Civil War, her latest song, “Won’t You Tell Me Why, Robin?” reached America and received a warm welcome. As with all her songs, heard in the fashionable salons, the lyrics were stylishly written and realistic, in part referring to a difficult gate — a delightful touch. Nevertheless, it is surprising that the song crossed the Atlantic so successfully, for the images it evoked of the countryside were essentially English and not familiar to the majority of Americans.

“I miss you at the wicket gate; you always let me through / It’s very hard to open, but you never come to try. / Won’t you tell me why, Robin? Won’t you tell me why?”

We never do learn why Robin, previously so attentive, clearly had lost interest in a puzzled and deeply hurt young lady. This touch of mystery adds interest to a naive but charming little wisp of a ballad.

Always very shy, Claribel already had established herself as a songwriter before the Civil War began in America. She was born Charlotte Alington Pye into an outwardly respectable, supposedly well-off family in Louth, a market town in the predominantly agricultural county of Lincolnshire, on Dec. 23, 1830.

In 1851, she became engaged to John George Hollway, a rising young barrister, but her father compelled her to break off the engagement. Sensitive and introspective, she suffered emotionally as a result, but in Victorian England, daughters obeyed their fathers. Perhaps this accounts for the hint of sadness to be found in many of her songs.

In 1854, Charlotte Pye married the Rev. Charles Cary Barnard, and they made their home in London. It was a childless and possibly not very loving marriage, but, unlike Julia Ward Howe’s husband, hers does not seem to have resented her artistic aspirations.

She began to pour out her simple, gentle, rather touching little songs, always in faultless taste and appealing particularly to women. Soon, society’s doors opened wide, and she sunned herself in the esteem of important people she should know.

Claribel’s romantic songs were even better liked in America than in England. “Take Back the Heart” (1864) is a notable example, becoming as well known in American cities as it already was in the land of its origin. It was a musical setting of a poem by Mrs. G.R. Gifford: “Take back the heart that thou gavest: what is my anguish to thee? / Take back the freedom thou cravest, leaving the fetters to me.”

This song, with its underlying bitterness, had as its subject marital infidelity, and Mrs. Gifford was writing from personal experience at a time when divorce was socially unacceptable.

Although less intense, “Oh! Mother, Take the Wheel Away,” entirely Claribel’s own work, also portrays an unhappy situation. A jilted girl broods at home on her former fiance’s wedding night: “Mother, take the wheel away, / I cannot spin tonight.” This doleful ditty reached America during the last agonies of the failing Confederacy.

To remain accepted by society, there had to be no hint of scandal. The Barnards lived blameless lives, but Charlotte’s father, who was president of the Lincolnshire Law Society and county treasurer of the City of London, was dishonest.

In 1868, he fled to France, evading arrest, a trial and certain imprisonment, after it was discovered he had fraudulently taken vast sums of money. He was declared bankrupt. Although they had known nothing of Henry Pye’s peculations, the Barnards were ruined socially.

Her father had driven the man she loved out of her life and now had made her a pariah, ending her career as a songwriter. He stood revealed as a common swindler. Instead of disowning him, Charlotte and Charles crossed the English Channel to Boulogne, where they spent some time with him. On the return journey, Charlotte became ill, and on Jan. 30, 1869, she died at Dover, a month after her 38th birthday.

Claribel’s songs soon faded away, with one exception, but that one appeared a year after the Civil War was over. “Come Back to Erin,” with a good lyric and an uncharacteristically vigorous tune, became a minor classic, sometimes thought of as the work of an Irish composer.

However, it is unlikely that Claribel had ever set foot on the Emerald Isle. The distinguished tenor John McCormack recorded “Come Back to Erin” on no fewer than eight occasions over the years.

Modern musicologists disdain Claribel, dismissing her songs as trivial, but that is unjust. They were creatures of their time, just as she was. Did Johnny Reb and Billy Yank sing her songs at campfires when day was done?

They probably did, for sentimental ballads such as “Aura Lea,” “Sweet Evalina” and “Lorena” were great favorites, as was the much older “Annie Laurie.” One can only wonder whether a song by a shy young Englishwoman was heard when the sounds of conflict at Shiloh had died away.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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