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Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

25 November 2022

Judith Maltby reviews a novel set in the wake of the Restoration

ROBERT HARRIS is the master of the high-quality historical thriller. History is not simply a backdrop in his novels, but an interlocutor with our own age, whether it is the disintegration of the Roman Republic in his Cicero trilogy or (my personal favourite) the corruption and bigotry of late 19th-century France in his gripping novel about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy.

He has never tackled a novel set in my own period of academic expertise before; so would I find myself rankled? No worries there: Harris displays an impressive grasp of the historical context without taxing his readers by showing his “workings”.

Act of Oblivion is based on historical events. The success of Charles II’s restoration required a widespread “forgetting” of the actions of many individuals who had served the Cromwellian regime, in the army, the Church, and in national and local government. But there could be no “forgetting” for the 59 men who signed the death warrant of Charles I.

In the early 1660s, some had died like Cromwell himself; others were hunted down and executed in the most horrific way. Harris’s novel is based on two colonels in the New Model Army, Edward Whalley and William Goffe (Whalley is Goffe’s father-in-law), who escape to what they think will be the Puritan sanctuary of America, only to find that they are too dangerous to know even for the self-identified godly of New England. Anyone who would like an excellent historical account of their troubles should read Matthew Jenkinson’s Charles I’s Killers in America (2019).

Harris has done his homework, but it is a novel, and he invents for dramatic purposes a driven regicide hunter, Richard Nayler, who stops at nothing to bring the regicides to justice. In his obsession, Nayler utterly abandons his moral compass, and his cruel manipulation of Goffe’s wife, Frances, is chilling. He blames the colonels for the death of his wife and child after his arrest at an illegal Prayer Book communion service on Christmas Day in the 1650s — a double violation in the Cromwellian regime.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, early on in the novel, that Nayler, a staunch Royalist, needed this extra dose of motivation to justify his obsession. The novel’s powerful and moving ending, however, gives it dramatic coherence.

Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain, Fellow, and Dean of Welfare at Corpus Christi College, and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.


Act of Oblivion
Robert Harris
Hutchinson Heinemann £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

Read an interview with Robert Harris here

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