The beautiful and spirited Dolly Varden, daughter of the town locksmith, was a character from Charles Dickens' historical novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (1841) which tells the tale of family feuds and murder against the background of the Gordon riots of 1780 which began after the Protestant Lord Gordon incited a London mob to march to Parliament to demand the repeal of the Papists Act of 1778. It is Dolly's loyalty to the Catholic heroine, Emma Haredale, that causes her to be kidnapped along with her friend when Emma's uncle decides to prevent her marriage to Edward Chester. After many adventures, Dolly's suitor Joe Willet and Edward manage to rescue the girls.
Dolly was a popular character with the reading public, and Frith painted a number of episodes from the book in which she features. After admiring Friths's work, Dickens himself commissioned a painting of Dolly. Frith returned several times to painting Dolly in a woodland setting. Another example dating from circa 1842-9 (Tate Gallery, London), shows Dolly in the same "cherry coloured mantle and the hat and pink ribbons". It was not uncommon for Frith to revisit themes years later, and he returned to the subject as late as 1902.