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ON PRECEDENCE, &c.
I COME now to an important and universal species of competition. Important, I may indeed with propriety denominate it; namely, that of precedence. Who that has ever read the history of our own country, or that of others, but must be well aware, that a disregard of the right of an ambassador's precedence, or a denial of his claims, has sometimes involved kingdoms in war, and deluged the world with blood; affording one of the most melancholy as well as most convincing proofs of that pride of heart, disguised under the name of rights of nations, which is odious in the sight of him who is the King of Kings, and of whom it is said, that “ he casteth down the mighty from their seats, and exalteth the humble and
But I shall confine myself to observations on the pernicious effect of this sort of competition on the well-being of private life, and the heart-burnings, the jealousies, and the consequent detraction, which it is so apt to produce. Even amongst those whose rights are recorded in the Table of Precedence, there is a possibility of dangerous mistakes, for
though the most ignorant giver of a dinner knows that dukes and duchesses walk before marquisses and marchionesses, and so on down the list, still it requires some knowledge of heraldry to remember the intricate distinctions of the degrees of precedence amongst their children. I remember the pain experienced by a good-natured man of my acquaintance, on finding he had wounded the pride and feelings of two noble ladies, by leading out before them the lady of a baronet. But, to my friend, a lady was a lady, and to be honoured, as he supposed, before the other pretenders, who were simply mistresses, though honourable preceded their names; and in confiding ignorance he led the danie down to dinner before them, little dreaming of “ 10morrow's fate.” But, the next day, the mother of one of the ladies desired to speak to him; and, with no little eagerness, though with the manner of a true gentlewoman, proached him for the affront which he had passed upon the Honourable Mrs. A-; the distressed host anxiously desired to know how he had offended; when, to his great surprise, as well as dismay, he learned that it was by giving a baronet's lady the precedence of the wife of the younger son of an English earl! My poor friend could not deny the charge; but he apologized, promised to do so no more, and also promised, that when in the ensuing week, Mrs. A. honoured him with her presence to nearly the same party, he would take care to let her precede every one else; and the good
lady retired well pleased at having thus asserted the rights of her daughter. But my friend had made a rash promise, for he had not consulted Blackstone. Scarcely was this reprover gone, when he was told that Colonel B— wanted to see him on particular busi
My friend welcomed him with his usual urbanity, but the Colonel was rather distant in his behaviour, and told him that he called to require an explanation of the extraordinary disregard of the rights of a noble lady, which had been shown by him the preceding day. “O! dear Colonel,” replied the relieved offender, “Mrs. has just been here, has just shown me my error, the result of ignorance only; I have apologized, and when I have the honour of seeing you all at a supper party here next week, I have promised to give the precedence to the Honourable Mrs. A6. To the Honourable Mrs. As exclaimed the Colonel, in an angry tone; "what! in utter contempt of the rights of my wife!” My poor friend was thunderstruck; and with difficulty faultered out, but, Sir, I thought that the lady of an earl's younger son's wife”— “ Fiddlestick's end! for an earl's younger son's wife, Sir!” cried the indignant Colonel; “my wife is the eldest daughter of an English viscount, and what says Blackstone, vol. i, page 405?” “ I don't know, I never read Blackstone.' “ The more shame for you, Sir; well, in his table of precedence, he says, that a viscount's eldest son ranks before an earl's younger son, and that the daughters of noble
families always rank with their eldest brother.'”
“Does he, indeed, Sir?” exclaimed my friend; “ well, Colonel, and what then?” “What then, Sir? why the Honourable Mrs. B— must take the place every where of the Honourable Mrs. A; and if you again disregard her just rights, into your house, Sir, she shall never enter more. So saying, he strutted out of the room, leaving my friend convinced of the necessity of studying Blackstone in future, before he invited to his house the noble and the privileged. But it is not amongst those who know their own privileges to be ascertained beyond a doubt, that one sees the greatest tenaciousness of precedence. It is where rights are dubious, that withholding what we imagine our due, wounds our selflove and lowers our consequence, and that granting it is a pleasing tribute to our pride. It is no favour done to a lady of high rank to give her the precedence; she knows her right and takes it, and no new feeling of gratified pride is excited in her; the most obvious and uneasy clinging to precedence exists, where there is no real right to it, and where an appeal to Blackstone would be vain, because the social existence of the appellants is not named there. I mean amongst that numerous class in society, whose consequence is chiefly derived from the fulness of their purses; and I have often observed the pain with which the wives of opulent men in business have been forced to give precedence to the poor daughte of a baronet or a knight. How often have
heard this empty and only privilege grudged to its possessor, and her pride and presumption in accepting it, censured with an unsparing tongue! -competition, undoubtedly, in this instance, prompting to the unkind, and I may say unjust, detraction. How often have I found, on inquiry, when I have heard persons of dubious rights to precedence speaking with severity of the master of the house, where I knew that they had recently been visiting, that he had given precedence of the severe observer to some neighbour, friend, or relative; unsuccessful competition being, in this instance, again, the direct and undoubted source of detraction.
The master of a house gives no proof of his superior respect for his noble guests, when he gives them the precedence due to their rank; he only shows his knowledge of the red book, only acts according to heraldric rule. But where the right of going first depends, as it sometimes does, on the dinner-giver's own impression of the consequence and standing in society of the guest whom he selects, then the self-love is called into action, and is gratified, no doubt, in the person so preferred, and wounded, no doubt, in those who believe they had better right to the distinction. By universal consent, married women and married men take place of single ones; and no one, who is not ignorant of the common laws of good society, would lead the daughter of a merely rich man out of the room, before the wife even of a poor man; and decided seniority in age is