This is a lovely image by Henriette Browne of 1870, on display in London’s Museum of Childhood. But missing from their notes is the story being told.
The young girl is gazing at a small bird, not actually writing at the moment. Behind them is an empty cage. Women in the 18th century often described themselves as birds in gilded cages. Poet Mary Robinson took the metaphor further to draw parallels between women and slavery, hence the large umbers of women who supported the abolition of the slave trade campaign. From the early 18th century women ceased to work in the fields or family businesses alongside the men, to be restricted to the home and childrearing.
The bird seems to be a goldfinch, a popular cage bird with a fine singing voice, so again like women. But it became so popular that trapping of them in the 19th century threatened the species so became an early concern for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Going further back in history, the goldfinch was often depicted in Renaissance art, especially paintings of the madonna and child, when Christ was often shown holding or playing with a goldfinch. Its diet of thistles drew parallels with Christ’s crown of thorns to became a symbol of The Passion, so also of endurance and persistence. There are images of John the Baptist holding the bird out of reach of the Christ child, a warning of future suffering.
But I think the meaning of this story is the parallels between a bird freed from its cage and the benefits of education which liberate young girls from ignorance. The apples may also be significant, as symbols of the temptation of Eve, which the girl is turning away from.