Culture

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris review – regicides on the run

In 1675, the scattered tribes of New England formed an alliance and rose up against the English colonists who were forcing them off their land. At that time Hadley was a small, remote settlement on the Connecticut river. One Sunday, when the God-fearing inhabitants were in church, the Norwottuck tribe launched an all-out assault.

From nowhere a stranger appeared, a middle-aged man who raised the alarm, organised the town’s defences and led a brutally efficient counterattack. Afterwards he vanished as abruptly as he had arrived.

The town’s unknown saviour became known as the Angel of Hadley. The mystery of his identity soon gained an extra frisson: it was rumoured that the Angel was the fugitive Major General William Goffe, a man with a huge reward on his head. Goffe was one of the regicides, the men who signed Charles I’s death warrant, whose lives had become forfeit after the Restoration of the monarchy.

Robert Harris is a remarkably versatile novelist whose settings range from Ancient Rome to 800 years in the future. A former political journalist, he often explores the darker aspects of politics and its corrupting effects on individuals. Here he looks at one of the great conflicts of English history: the bitter civil war between royalists and parliamentarians. The extremists on both sides were imbued with an absolute conviction that they operated under carte blanche from God.

The execution of the king was the defining event of this struggle. Harris chooses to focus instead on the lives in exile of two of the regicides, Goffe and Edward Whalley. In 1660, they fled to America, where many of the colonists were Puritans with no love for the king. Both men were distinguished soldiers. Whalley was Oliver Cromwell’s cousin, a trusted member of the Lord Protector’s inner circle, and Goffe was Whalley’s son-in-law. We know tantalisingly little about their lives in America. They lived in hiding, in constant fear of arrest by the royalist agents who were searching for them.

As the German poet and philosopher Novalis remarked more than two centuries ago, novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Harris sets out to plug the gaps in the record, and succeeds remarkably well. He’s writing fiction, but he treats the few available facts and the more plausible theories with respect, and skilfully extrapolates from them.

Every quarry needs a hunter. Harris counterbalances Whalley and Goffe with Richard Nayler, the fictional secretary to the regicide committee of the privy council, who has a powerful personal reason to want them dead. Meanwhile in London, Frances, Goffe’s devoted wife and Whalley’s daughter, provides another viewpoint. The novel’s narrative structure moves to and fro between them, ultimately leading to a brisk if slightly implausible conclusion.

It’s not only the hunt that interests Harris: it’s also everything that led to it – the civil war, the execution of Charles I and the years of the Commonwealth and Cromwell. He deals with this in a series of flashbacks, which include some of the most dramatic scenes of the novel. Whalley, the nearest thing the book has to a protagonist, uses his enforced leisure to write an account of his life for Frances. Extracts from this mingle with his memories, and with a reassessment of his own life and beliefs.

Harris underpins the book with substantial research and writes in unobtrusively effective prose (his pastiche of 17th-century English is particularly good). 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 come to an end in 1666 (on the divine authority that 666 was the Number of the Beast). The novel’s greatest achievement is that it makes us understand them, even like them, while paying the same compliment to the equally fanatical Nayler. This is Harris at his best, which is very good indeed.

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Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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