This is the central panel of a triptych entitled Woman's Mission and representing the three stages in a woman's life as 'ministering angel'. The other two panels, Guide of Childhood and Comfort of Old Age, are now lost. Together they echo prevailing views of woman's role in the Victorian home and reinforce the desired image of the 'fairer sex' as pure and submissive, as conveyed by Coventry Patmore in his popular poem 'The Angel in the House' (1854-63). The picture also anticipates John Ruskin's discussion of the relationships between men and women in his essay 'Of Queens' Gardens', from Sesame and Lilies (1865). Ruskin recommends that the education of girls should lead to 'true wifely subjection' on the part of 'her who was made to be the helpmate of man' (quoted in Lambourne, p.377).
The narrative is made clear in the picture through the discarded, black-edged envelope lying on the floor and the letter in the husband's hand. He has just received news of the death of someone close to him and his wife, the 'companion of manhood', comforts him in his grief. Hicks uses the picture's setting to reinforce the notion that she is a dutiful wife in every way. She is clearly able to run an efficient and comfortable home. The table is neatly laid for breakfast and there are fresh flowers in the vase on the mantlepiece. She is attractive and well groomed, but not frivolous in appearance. Her concern is solely for her husband's welfare and well being. As Ruskin writes,
the woman's power is for rule not battle - and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision…Her function is praise. By her office and place she is protected from all danger and temptation…This is the true nature of home - it is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division… And whenever a true wife comes, the home is always round her. (Quoted in Lambourne, p.377.)
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.375-7, reproduced p.375, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.103-5, reproduced p.106, in colour.