Romney executed a series of paintings of Serena, the long-suffering heroine of William Hayley's poem The Triumphs of Temper. This is a sketch for 'Serena Reading', one of two depictions of her absorbed in a book that date from circa 1781. Romney would later return to the subject, painting his muse Emma Hart as Serena in 1784-5.
Hayley's poem describes the ordeals undergone by a young woman before she is at last rewarded with a happy marriage. The culture of sentiment that flourished in the late eighteenth-century put great emphasis on changing nuances of emotion and Hayley's poem partakes of this fascination with feeling: it is an epic of the temper. Romney chooses to depict the following lines from Canto I in which Serena is reading Fanny Burney's first novel Evelina:
'Sweet Evelina's fascinating power
Had first beguil'd of sleep her midnight hour
Posses't by Sympathy's enchanting sway,
She reads, unconscious of the dawning day.'
In a wonderful moment of literary interplay, one great literary heroine reads and, moreover, sympathises with another.
Romney's Serena turns away from the viewer, her eyes held captive by the page. While in a second version Romney paints her from the front, seated on a low couch, here she is ensconced in a comfortable armchair. In the final oil painting she leans one arm on a table in front of her and holds the book near a candle. A mountainous landscape and the first rays of light are just visible behind her, giving a romantic expansiveness to an otherwise domestic scene.
In the sketch Serena and her book fill the sheet, although her pose is almost exactly that of the finished version. The model has not been identified. She was once thought to be Miss Honora Sneyd but it is now clear that Sneyd in fact died before the publication of Hayley's poem.