A real howler
This post is a confession. I have just made a real classic howler – in an embarrassingly public way. It serves me right. I’m a reviewer who is often ready to tut-tut about other people’s silly errors, mistaken dates and mangled spellings (“. . . only a pity that Professor X seems to imagine that the third triumph of Pompey took place in 59 BC”, and the like). This biter is now well and truly bit.
You may remember that I was writing the programme notes for Handel’s Agrippina at the Coliseum (which I’m off to see tonight, snow permitting). I was actually rather pleased about what I’d done, teasing out a lot more about the classical roots of the plot than your average opera critic. Well, pride came before a fall.
A couple of days ago one of those opera critics (one who had actually read Classics with me at Cambridge all those years ago) sent me a wonderfully tactful e-mail. He had just seen ENO’s Agrippina (in the picture), much enjoyed my programme notes … but. . .err . . .wasn’t the Agrippina in question not the grand-daughter of the first emperor Augustus (as I had written), but the great-grand-daughter?
If you’re not up with the family tree of the first Roman dynasty, this might not be particularly startling. For me it brought a very big blush indeed – the kind of thing that would have elicited a big red NO if I’d found it in a student essay.
On these occasions you go through a predictable series of emotions. After the initial drop-through-the-floor horror comes a more comforting sense of proportion. This takes the form either of “no one will notice” or – more realistically, because they do notice – “it doesn’t actually matter to the argument” (true in this case, the point I am making is that she was in direct line of descent from the emperor). Then, finally, you wonder how on earth you could have done it.
I know perfectly well that this Agrippina was the great-grand-daughter of Augustus; that she was different from her mother – who was also called Agrippina and was the grand-daughter (this is the sort of thing you learn in the first year). So how could I have written what I did and not noticed?
It’s something about having the internal censor turned off. Interestingly (if not more embarrassing) I have done something a bit like this before. In an article about the study of classical art in Victorian Cambridge, I wrote that Prince Albert-Victor (Duke of Clarence and Jack-the-Ripper suspect) was the son of Queen Victoria – when, “as any ful kno” (as Molesworth would have said), he was the grand-son.
I come to the conclusion that I have a mental machinery in operation that checks and re-checks dates with reasonable efficiency. But there’s nothing in my head which puts the internal fact-checker on when it comes to human relationships. I simply don’t notice what I’ve written. I know what is right, but I don't spot the errors.
Anyway, I shall make a full confession in my pre-performance talk tonight…and wait for all those letters from classically-educated opera goers, gleefully pointing out the error. Howlers do, after all, give some people pleasure.