The title of this picture is taken from Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s romance Paul et Virginie (1787), which appealed to a wide Victorian readership and went through several English editions. Julia Margaret Cameron may have read the novel in its original French as a child. The story is a moral fable centered on the virtues of true love and chastity, in which the protagonists are children. The narrative is structured upon a dramatic shipwreck on the coast of the French colony of Mauritius, in which Virginia dies because of her modesty, refusing to shed her clothes so that she can be rescued. Cameron often took well-known works of literature or painting as inspiration for individual images and then interpreted them loosely to communicate universal underlying themes.
Cameron suggests the tropical setting with an indoor mise-en-scène that includes a bamboo-handled parasol and a scattering of greenery on the floor in the foreground. The children—Freddy Gould (at left; the son of a local fisherman, at age three, and Elizabeth Keown (at right; the daughter of a fortkeeper on the Isle of Wight, at age five)—perform their roles while draped in pastoral robes. Their behavior toward each other is exemplary—they do not tussle over the parasol but gladly share it. Cameron placed the camera in a low position and organized the composition so as to show the models full length, a pictorial device commonly seen in the child studies of Lewis Carroll. The boy appears to be teetering backward, no doubt due to the length of time and endless instructions required in the preparation for exposure. Cameron was evidently troubled by the undue prominence of his feet and attempted to downplay their presence by taking the rather unusual step of retouching this area of the negative.