What does precedence even mean?
Precedence might seem strange to us in the twenty-first century, especially for those of us in places without hereditary titles. But the British peerage isn’t the only place where order and rank are observed. The US State Department has an Office of the Chief of Protocol that determines ceremonial standing at events; this is how we know the former presidents and their widows/widowers are sat by the seniority of when they assumed office. The Catholic Church has rank ordered within its hierarchy, too; according to order, then jurisdiction, then titular honors. You can look at someone in a service dress uniform and know by the insignias and where they are what her rank is and if she’s enlisted or an officer.
It’s not so outdated as you might think, but I bet that hearing 'precedence' still calls to mind Mr. Collins going on about how Lady Catherine "likes to have the distinction of rank preserved."
There are plenty of sources that describe how to address a marquis and answer does a son of a duke outrank a marquis. (No, he doesn’t.) Although, sometimes it’s not so easy. Imagine that the Speaker of the House of Commons, a baron, and the son of a duke are in the same room and have to leave in order of dignity. Are they trapped until they figure it out?
(In case you're dying to know, the Speaker is ranked before all commoners, and legally the son of a duke is only a commoner, but actually the baron is before the Speaker, and the ducal son is before the baron.)
Essentially, within the divisions of rank those who hold an office are higher than those who hold an honorary title, or a retired one. When two people have the same rank, the one with the oldest charter is first, or the person who falls first in birth order. A married person comes before a single person.
A core principle was that precedence came from one’s father or husband, unless you were a peeress in your own right. The wife takes her rank, and therefore her precedence, from her husband. A widow retains the rank she had while married, but if she marries again, her precedence then is determined either by the rank of her second husband, or by the rank that was hers at birth.
In a way, precedence kept things orderly in seating, in processions at court, when one spoke in Parliament, and how you lined up in a dance.
But precedence was more than the ceremony of order to prevent disputes in ballrooms. It was about knowing your place in the world, knowing everyone else’s place, and immediately being able to fall in line accordingly. It was about who had the right to enjoy a prerogative of honor before someone else, who had a higher place in a procession, who had the right to speak first.
It all boiled down to showing respect to those around you and maintaining a societal order. There was a connection between order of precedence and etiquette. The way someone is presented tells you a lot about them, about their importance, their connexions, and their wealth. When meeting a new person, you could learn a lot about them simply by looking at how they fell in order of precedence. It was a part of day-to-day life, and it usually wasn’t a source of contention.
What does this mean for a typical Georgian person? In Austen’s works, her characters aren’t dealing with marchionesses versus daughters of dukes lining up to dance. There are a few knights and baronets—who are not peers—but Austen’s characters aren't dealing with upper ranks or speaking in Parliament. They’re all gentlemen, or married to a gentleman, or the children of a gentleman.
In Persuasion, Mary Musgrove---a baronet's youngest daughter who married a gentleman’s son---insists on taking precedence over her mother-in-law. Everyone in the family knows that Mary ranks higher, but Henrietta and Louisa wish she wouldn’t insist on it so much and just let Mrs. Musgrove, an older, married woman, and her mother-in-law, walk into dinner first when she's hosting her friends.
While Mary is in Lyme with Louisa she’s put out at first because, “Mrs. Harville had always given Mrs. Musgrove precedence; but then she had received so very handsome an apology from her on finding out whose daughter she was…”
When she’s thinking about Captain Wentworth possibly marrying Henrietta rather than Charles Hayter---whom she looks down on---Mary says, “If he should ever be made a baronet! 'Lady Wentworth' sounds very well. That would be a noble thing, indeed, for Henrietta! She would take place of me then, and Henrietta would not dislike that. Sir Frederick and Lady Wentworth! It would be but a new creation, however, and I never think much of your new creations."
Mary is so concerned with precedence and rank that she thinks Henrietta would love to lord over her by being Lady Wentworth, but Mary comforts herself with at least knowing that it wouldn’t be as old a creation as her father’s. At the end of Persuasion, Mary has “something to suffer” in seeing her newly-married elder sister Anne “restored to the rights of seniority".
This obsession with precedence is one of the many reasons that Mary is so unlikeable.
Daughters of a family take precedence according to order of birth, except married daughters will take precedence above all unmarried daughters. This is why Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, even though she is the youngest daughter and has just narrowly avoided bringing irreparable harm to her family’s reputation, now takes precedence.
“Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”
Technically, she’s right, but is this really the time, Lydia?
It also comes up in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Collins introduces himself to Darcy. Aside from there being rules about a mutual party facilitating an introduction or the person of greater consequence initiating an acquaintance, gentlemen entitled to bear arms and gentlemen by office, function, or profession outranked clergymen.
When Elizabeth tries to dissuade him, Mr. Collins says, “…I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom…” and implies that Elizabeth shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about such things. Maybe if you were a bishop, Mr. Collins, you could just go up and talk to nearly anyone you had never been introduced to, but this won't end well for you.
This quote comes from one of Austen’s letters from 1813. The sense of where one falls in a social hierarchy is so ingrained that she knows Sir Brook should appear first even in writing casual correspondence to her sister.
(Sir Brook Bridges was Edward Austen’s brother-in-law, so I wonder what that relationship was like.)
Compare that to how Austen listed her friends from Goodnestone in a 1796 letter:
“Lady Waltham, Miss Bridges, and Miss Mary Finch (repair to) to Dover, for the health of the two former.”
The married Lady Waltham ranks higher than single Miss Bridges, whose father is a baronet, and she ranks higher than another single woman who is a younger daughter (Miss Mary Finch rather than Miss Finch).
Georgian England was a highly stratified society. So much came down to paying deference to those above you with the expectation that those below you would show you the same curtesy. It was taught from birth and everyone intuitively understood the degree of deference a person must show to those above them or expect from those below. It wasn’t simply about power, although that was intrinsically tired to it. Precedence was an ingrained social norm to provide order and predictability.
But it’s the characters who are obsessed with rank---Sir Walter, Mary Musgrove, Lady Catherine---who Austen wants us to laugh at.