Miss Bingley’s Envelope

Two Young Women - Henri-Francois Riesener
Detail from Two Young Women, painted by Henri-François Riesener. (Source: Sotheby’s)

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:

YMBC&GUKOnEnvelopes

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.

The Common Extent of Accomplishments

 LizzieBennetReads

What do I need to learn to become an accomplished lady? Let’s ask Jane Austen! Probably her most famous statement on female accomplishment is a spirited debate. It takes place in chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice and involves Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, and Mr. Darcy.

MrBingley

Mr. Bingley starts by listing a few accomplishments that we would call “crafts”:

 They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.

These crafts produce useful items, but the skills employed are essentially decorative. Mr. Darcy thinks this is a sad comment on the state of women’s accomplishments:

 “Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

MissBingley

Miss Bingley chimes in to add a list of skills that engage the mind and body more deeply, but her main concern is expressing the kind of refinement she and her sister took pains in acquiring at “one of the first private seminaries in town” (Chapter 4):

[N]o one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.

MrDarcy

Finally, Mr. Darcy exposes the shallowness of Miss Bingley’s description and alludes to an earlier topic in the conversation- Elizabeth’s choice to read rather than play cards:

 “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

Along with Elizabeth, I am no longer surprised that Mr. Darcy knows only half a dozen ladies that meet these strict qualifications for accomplishment- I’m astonished that he knows any! That’s a long list of skills!  Luckily I already have some knowledge of the “Modern Languages” so I won’t be covering that very much here, but everything else. . .

What I plan to do is start with just one item from this list, drawing, which seems to be one of the most common skills Jane Austen’s heroines practice. I’ll also be working on an even more fundamental accomplishment not mentioned in chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice (although it does get a lot of attention in Ch.10)- writing with a “lady’s fair, flowing hand” (P&P Chapter 21). Neither of these skills is exclusively feminine, but they do seem to be an essential part of the accomplished lady’s repertoire.

Next: “Without the Aid of A Master”: Sources for acquiring accomplishments