A typical piece of Victorian story-telling, with the almost obligatory element of ambiguity. The young woman has received a letter from the heavily-whiskered man whose face appears in the mirror, but their relationship and her emotions remain unclear. She seems to be of a certain age, and may well be in mourning. Could the man be an adventurer, with designs on her inherited money?
The receiving and writing of letters loom large in Victorian genre painting, a reflection of the enormous improvement in the postal service following Sir Rowland Hill's invention of the penny post. Letters certainly figure prominently in this young woman's existence, witness the others in the rack on the wall and tucked into the frame of the mirror.
It has been suggested that the artist herself was the model. The figure is said to bear a certain resemblance to that of the young poacher's mother in her picture The Lion and the Mouse, which in turn has been tentatively identified as a self-portrait (see Solomon: A Family of Painters, exh. Geffrye Museum, London, 1985, cat. p. 63, no. 32, illustrated). However, as Pamela Gerrish-Nunn observed in the Geffrye Museum exhibition catalogue, 'this theory (about the self-portrait) has yet to be substantiated.' It is also disconcerting that the figure in the Forbes picture looks older than the mother in The Lion and the Mouse, yet the latter was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, four years after the Forbes picture was painted.
For further interpretations of this picture, see the articles by Charlotte Gere and Lionel Lambourne in these catalogues.