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The book corner: Act of Oblivion

  • 25 November 2022
Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris Penguin, 2022   The British novelist Robert Harris grew up on a council estate in Nottingham and began his writing career as a journalist and writer of non-fiction. He is probably most famous for his best-selling novel Fatherland, a detective novel with an alternative history setting in which Nazi Germany has won the war. Harris has produced an impressive list of bestsellers, and several of his books have been made into successful films. He is an admirably versatile writer: among his successes is a trilogy set in ancient Rome, Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator. Act of Oblivion is set in the Restoration period of English history and is Harris’s 15th novel.

After seven years of civil war, King Charles I was executed by decree of parliament on 30 January 1649. Then followed 11 years of parliamentary rule, usually known as the Interregnum, during which Oliver Cromwell, a leading parliamentarian, ruled as Lord Protector. When Cromwell died in September 1658, his son Richard was unable to exercise the same authority, and on 25 May 1660, Charles II returned to London as king.

In August of that year the Indemnity and Oblivion Act was passed. This act pardoned all past treason against the Crown, but those involved in the trial and execution of Charles I were not pardoned. The death warrant for Charles I had been signed by 59 judges, and 31 of them were still alive in 1660. Those caught suffered a terrible death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Pursuit of the guilty was unremitting: three regicides, for example, were caught in the Netherlands and were brought back to England to be executed.

Act of Oblivion follows the careers of three regicides and Civil War veterans who fled to the British colonies in America: Edward Whalley, cousin of Cromwell, Whalley’s son-in-law William Goffe, and John Dixwell. Dixwell appears in the narrative only towards the end — the main action focuses on Whalley and Goffe. The attraction of the American colonies, apart from that of distance, was the fact that most of the settlements had been founded by Puritans escaping religious repression in Britain. Thus the escaping regicides felt confident, although not certain, of safe shelter. At the beginning of the novel Whalley and Goffe have comparative freedom, but all too soon their lives become very restricted and the hardships and loneliness suffered become very real to the reader.

Any historical novel has