Review-Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris-Hutchinson Heinemann-1st edition (September 1st 2022)

“There are ideal series of events which run parallel with the real ones. They rarely coincide. Men and circumstances generally modify the ideal train of events so that it seems imperfect, and its consequences are equally imperfect. Thus with the Reformation, instead of Protestantism came Lutheranism.”

The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt” (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe.

“If one man is fated to be killed by another, it would be interesting to trace the gradual convergence of their paths. At the start, they might be miles away from one another, and yet eventually, we are bound to meet. We can’t avoid it.”

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Robert Harris is a remarkably versatile and clever writer. He has written numerous books on wide-ranging subjects such as Ancient Rome and The Second World War and a book set 800 years in the future. Titles including ‘Fatherland’, ‘Munich’ and ‘An Officer and a Spy.

His latest narrative-driven book examines one of the most contentious periods in British, if not world history, The English Revolution. It is well-written and researched.

The book covers Charles I execution and the subsequent pursuit of two leading regicides who signed the king’s death warrant. Colonel Will Goffe and Edward Whalley were exiled to America in 1660, where they were welcomed with open arms by many colonists who were Puritans and had supported their political stance against the king. Both men were high-ranking soldiers in the New Model Army, and Whalley was Oliver Cromwell’s cousin. Both played an important part in the successful English revolution.

Harris’s book treads an already well-trodden path. The last few years alone have seen numerous books on the subject covered in his book.[1]The book appears well researched, but Harris, like many other historians, has found a dearth of information about what Walley and Goffe did in America. So like all good writers, he makes things up and employs a method favoured by the 18th-century writer, poet and philosopher Novalis, who wrote, “There are ideal series of events which run parallel with the real ones. They rarely coincide. Men and circumstances generally modify the ideal train of events to seem imperfect, and its consequences are equally imperfect.”[2]

Regarding historiography, the book is part of a new wave of studies, both fiction and non-fiction, concentrating on different aspects of the Royalist cause in the 17th century.

Not all historians are fans of narrative-based historical writing. When C V Wedgwood produced her splendid book A King Condemned-The Trial and Execution of Charles Ist, it was criticised by some historians. In the foreword of  the 2011 edition, Clive Holmes said: “Wedgwood’s relationship with academic historians was not an easy one, and the immediate reception of this work by the professionals in their flagship journals was cool and even condescending.”

While Harris’s invention of the character Richard Naylor is legitimate and interesting, one can’t help feeling that Harris is trying to persecute the two regicides again. He seems a bit miffed that they escaped the so-called royal justice of Charles II. Further hostility came from the pen of the Guardian newspaper, Andrew Taylor writes, “It’s not easy to make Whalley and Goffe sympathetic to a modern sensibility. They were hardcore Puritans who believed that only the elect would go to heaven, that their aggressively righteous ends justified their often ruthless means and that the world would end in 1666.”[3]

Just like their modern counterparts, the late 17th  English bourgeoisie would rather forget their revolution of the 1640s; hence The 1660 Act of Oblivion(the title of the book), was an act of parliament supported by Charles II to draw a line under the events of the 1640s and pretend they never happened.

‘The wounds of the brutal civil war are still visible on men’s bodies”: the execution of Charles I in Whitehall, London, 1649. Illustration: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But it cannot be denied that the killing of the king had, as Ann Talbot recounts, “a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie was soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a dreadful mistake, no monarch sat quickly on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign”.

Also as Christopher Hill put it so well, “In 1660 passive obedience was preached in all pulpits; a King was brought back “with plenty of holy oil about him,” because this was necessary for Parliament, for the possessing classes, threatened by social revolution from below. A white terror was introduced by the returned émigrés, and an attempt was made to drive from political life all who did not accept the restored régime in Church and State (the Clarendon Code, the Test Act). Educational advances, like the purge which had made Oxford a centre of scientific research, were reversed. All this broke the revolutionary-democratic movement for the moment, though it fought back again in the sixteen-seventies and -eighties. In 1662 a Presbyterian minister, who had been deprived of his living by the Restoration, wrote in words that recaptured the fears of many respectable members of the possessing classes at that time: “Though soon after the settlement of the nation we saw ourselves the despised and cheated party … yet in all this, I have suffered since, I look upon it as less than my trouble was from my fears then … Then we lay at the mercy and impulse of a giddy, hot-headed, bloody multitude.”[4]

Harris’s book, albeit fictitious in parts, shows that this manhunt dominated the reign of Charles II. While sanctioning what amounted to judicial murder, the regime was hardly a picture of stability. The longer the show trial went on, the more nervous Charles and his ministers became and recognised the growing danger of rebellion. Charles II made one mistake in giving a public funeral to one of the regicides. Over twenty thousand people attended, testifying to the still considerable support for Republican ideas.

Conclusion

One of the difficulties of writing about this period of English history is that, as one writer put it, “intricacies of religious faith and faction can seem distant and abstruse to a modern audience”. But Harris’s book is timely as the United Kingdom is living through a period of constitutional upheaval and faces the distinct possibility of breaking up. Act of Oblivion is an enjoyable read and has a ring of authenticity. It is pointless recommending this book, and Harris’s books sell in the millions, but it is a good read.

Notes

1.   The Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660 was an Act of the Parliament of England (12 Cha. II c. 11), the long title of which is “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion”. This act was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth period, with the exception of certain crimes such as murder (without a licence granted by the King or Parliament), piracy, buggery, rape and witchcraft, and people named in the act such as those involved in the regicide of Charles I. It also said that no action was to be taken against those involved at any later time and that the Interregnum was to be legally forgotten.

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[1] See Charles I’s Executioners -Civil War, Regicide and the Republic By James Hobson- Pen & Sword History-Published: 4th November 2020. https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2021/04/charles-is-executioners-civil-war.html andKillers of the King – The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I Hardcover – Charles Spencer 11 Sep 2014 352 pages Bloomsbury Publishing – ISBN-13: 978-1408851708-https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2014/10/killers-of-king-men-who-dared-to_23.html

[2] The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt” (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/sep/08/act-of-oblivion-by-robert-harris-review-regicides-on-the-run

[4] The English Revolution 1640- https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/

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