The Elegant Girl consists of twelve coloured drawings, each of the same size and each accompanied by a six-line poem in rhyming couplets. Each drawing shows a young girl participating in some kind of activity, such as saying her prayers when she gets up in the morning, giving food to the poor and having a piano lesson. The poems provide guidance as to how to interpret the drawings, placing them in a moral, and sometimes explicitly religious, framework.

What do the drawings and poems tell us about the pursuits of young women during the period?

The young girl in this book represents the ideal female child of the leisured classes: religious, dutiful, accomplished and kind. The title of the book shows that elegance and virtue were seen as compatible; indeed, it suggests that elegance is the natural consequence of virtue. Attention to appearance, correct etiquette and the acquisition of accomplishments are portrayed as moral obligations rather than superficial distractions.

The appearance of the young girl, her mother and her home, as well as her activities, mark her out as being from a wealthy family. Her education includes learning to paint, play music and dance, all of which were important accomplishments for a young woman of her class. For those who could afford it, doing charitable works was equally important. The girl in this book brings food to a poor cottager, reads to a sick widow and donates some of her toys to the poor. The girl’s mother is portrayed as her moral and educative instructor, overseeing her studies and helping her to help the unfortunate. The book therefore shows not just the ideal behaviour for a young girl, but the ideal relationship between mother and child.