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There is the following sentence in Jeffery Archer’s detective story False Impression:

Arabella was so wise and sensible. If only her beloved twin had been born a few minutes earlier rather than a few minutes later, then she (Arabella) would have inherited the estate (of Earl of Wentworth titled in 1815) and undoubtedly handled the problem with considerably more panache.

From the above sentence, I speculate that the twin who was born later than the other is acknowledged as the elder sibling and the first heir of the parental estate in order in U.K. If my guess is right, what is the reason, base or provenance for giving priority to the “late comer to the world,” not the “first comer’ in the family order?

In Japan, we had the same custom of acknowledging “the born-later” as the elder sibling before the Meiji era (up to late 19 century), but today’s Family Register Law provides the “earlier-born” to be the elder of the twins.

Update with more context

I have added the previous paragraph which makes this sentence Victoria's point of view about Arabella.

Victoria looked steadfastly ahead as she climbed the wide marble staircase to her bedroom on the first floor. She felt unable to look into the eyes of her ancestors, brought to life by Romney, Lawrence, Reynolds, Lely and Kneller, conscious of having let them all down. Victoria accepted that before she retired to bed she must finally write to her sister and let her know the decision she had come to.

Arabella was so wise and sensible. If only her beloved twin had been born a few minutes earlier rather than a few minutes later, then she would have inherited the estate, and undoubtedly handled the problem with considerably more panache. And worse, when Arabella learned the news, she would neither complain nor remonstrate, just continue to display the family's stiff upper lip.

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I've added the previous paragraph as well to this - I think it is Victoria thinking about Arabella and what she (Arabella) would have done when faced with the same problem. –  JoseK Sep 30 '11 at 12:31
    
and if anyone wishes to do more research, a (surely unauthorized) copy of the text is found here ncetianz.webs.com/Novels/JEFFREY%20%20ARCHER%20COLLECTION/… –  JoseK Sep 30 '11 at 12:33
    
Thanks, @JoseK. I think that definitely clarifies that Archer was writing the passage from Victoria's perspective. –  onomatomaniak Sep 30 '11 at 12:51
    
Doesn't seem to be an English question but rather a cultural question. –  Mark Oct 5 '11 at 9:25

2 Answers 2

I'd say it's not exceptionally well written (or edited) - but without the context of the previous sentences it's hard to tell. I don't think there's any ultimo/primogeniture confusion going on here. By adding a couple of explanatory notes, I think the meaning becomes clearer.

“Arabella was so wise and sensible. If only her (Victoria's) beloved twin (Arabella) had been born a few minutes earlier rather than a few minutes later, then she (Arabella) would have inherited the estate (of Earl of Wentworth titled in 1815) and undoubtedly handled the problem with more considerably panache.”

The paragraph that this comes from is probably a longer lament from Victoria's point of view and, as such, in context, is probably more easily understood

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Sorry, I notice that this is exactly what Peter Taylor wrote much more succinctly in his comment above. –  Matt Sep 30 '11 at 12:25
    
And you are right, as the previous paragraph shows it is indeed a a longer lament from Victoria's point of view –  JoseK Sep 30 '11 at 12:35
    
I take it back, having read the previous paragraph, I no longer think it's badly written at all. This is all clearly from Victoria's point of view and therefore reads quite logically. If I didn't know better, I'd say this question was really a test to see what kind of answers you would get :) However, I do like Alan Pannetier's lift analogy to explain ultomogeniture. –  Matt Sep 30 '11 at 12:44
    
I think it's fine for speech, because you can use rhythm and tone to give all the hints needed. In a novel intended for reading, however, I think it's a garden path - at best, you have to hold the referent of "her" open until you get to "earlier", at which point you have to work it out from context. Too much thought required. –  Peter Taylor Sep 30 '11 at 13:08
    
To all who gave me answers and comments: There was an definite answer to the question in page 23 of the novel. Please see my follow-up response to onomatomaniac. Many thanks for your precious input. –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 2 '11 at 11:49

It seems you interpreted this passage incorrectly.

The elder twin is the one who was born first (earliest) chronologically.

The narrator is lamenting the fact that the wise younger twin, Arabella, was born second, as her twin sibling seems to be making a mess of the inheritance process.

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The word "her" refers to the older twin, while "she" refers to Arabella. It's confusing because we expect the antecedent to refer to the person just named, but in this case it refers to another character in the book. (This is the reason the author clarifies that the second pronoun refers to Arabella.) I'm sure the rest of the passage would clarify - my guess is that the book is written largely from the older twin's perspective. –  onomatomaniak Sep 30 '11 at 6:37
    
@Onomatomaniac. This sentence is confusing to me, because I thought "If only her beloved twin (Victoria) had been born earlier rather than a few minutes later (than Arabella)” in Subjunctive Past Tense means that it didn’t happen. i.e., Victoria wasn’t born earlier than Arabella ‘in fact’ and Arabella was born earlier than Victoria who succeeded whole estate of the Earl of Wentworth as the heir. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 30 '11 at 6:39
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Try it this way: If only Victoria's younger twin, Arabella, had been born a few minutes earlier, then Arabella would have inherited the estate. –  onomatomaniak Sep 30 '11 at 6:41
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@Onomatomaniac. I don’t still get the idea. Isn’t it too abrupt to have sudden shift of the subject (from Arabella to Victoria) immediate after the sentence of “Arabella was so wise and sensible.” If I should follow your interpretation, isn’t it more smooth to say “Arabella was so wise and sensible. If only her (Araballa’s) twin (Victoria) had been born earlier, than “Arabella was so wise and sensible. If only Victoria’s twin (Araballa’s) had been born earlier. I’m getting more confused writing this. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 30 '11 at 8:07
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@Yoichi, the problem is that Archer mangled the sentence. With a few more hints it becomes "If only her (Victoria's) beloved twin (Arabella) had been born a few minutes earlier rather than a few minutes later, then she (Arabella) would have inherited..." I think that Archer reckons Victoria is salient as the referent of the "her" because the narrative is from Victoria's perspective. –  Peter Taylor Sep 30 '11 at 10:53

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