Envelopes as we know them- ready-made paper enclosures for cards and letters- were not in use until much later in the 19th century. But Jane Austen uses the word ‘envelope’ in Volume 1, Chapter 21 of Pride and Prejudice, when Caroline Bingley sends a farewell letter to Jane Bennet after the Netherfield Ball:
Soon after their return a letter was delivered to Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and was opened immediately. The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand. . .
What does she mean? I came across this definition for the noun envelope in Sheridan’s dictionary, 1804 edition: “A wrapper, an outward case.” It seems that the word did not yet have the very specific definition it has today. Austen probably meant us to imagine a separate sheet of paper wrapped around the letter. Why would Caroline Bingley bother to wrap her letter with an extra sheet of paper when so many letter-writers of this period work so hard to keep their letters to one sheet?
No detail in Jane Austen’s novels is superfluous- that envelope adds an important, if tiny, nuance to the scene. The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge gives some helpful context:
In other words, English letter-writers are caught between etiquette and the postal system- if they are writing a formal, respectful letter, they can signal their intention by adding a “cover” to their letter. But that additional sheet of paper doubles the entire charge for mailing it. Since ordinarily the recipient of the letter pays the postage, an ‘envelope’ condemns the addressee to pay an exorbitant price for that respect.
Miss Bingley’s entire letter is a carefully crafted statement. Her “elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well-covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand” shows off her wealth with its expensive paper and her accomplishments with its refined handwriting. The letter’s contents celebrate her exalted social circle in the city, far beyond country-mouse Jane’s reach. Miss Bingley’s use of the formal envelope may be ‘respectful,’ but it is not friendly. The letter is designed to show Jane that they will not be intimate in the future. That extra piece of paper, as much as the contents of the letter itself, leads Jane to say “Does it not expressly declare that Caroline neither expects nor wishes me to be her sister. . .?”
That leaves me with the question- was Miss Bingley so cruel as to send this two-sheet letter by post, making the Bennets pay double for the privilege of breaking Jane’s heart? Austen’s wording isn’t explicit, but it suggests to me that even Miss Bingley did not stoop so low- she had her servant deliver this poisonous little missive from Netherfield by hand.