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Robert Harris interview: Imagining Roundheads on the run

25 November 2022

The best-selling author talks to Susan Gray about his latest historical novel set in the reign of King Charles II

© Nick Cregan 2020

ROBERT HARRIS’s home in Berkshire ceased to be a working vicarage in 1938, but the feeling of being at the heart of village life still permeates his study. A lectern stands behind the desk.

“This is the vicar’s old study. It was a grand building put up in 1860, when the Church must have been at the zenith of its wealth. It’s a big house on the Kennet and Avon Canal. And it’s a working house: you can feel the place was made for people from the village to come in. I’ve worked here now for 30 years nearly — written 14 novels in this room. I liked the Victorian Gothic style.

“And the house also has a very strong Jane Austen connection. The house before this, built on exactly the same spot, was where the vicar had been a pupil of George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, and the two families are very close. And Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s sister, was engaged to the vicar’s son; so she often stayed here, and Jane Austen often stayed here as well. So, the house is bound up with religion and with literature.”

Two of Harris’s novels have been written with the King James Bible at his side. The Second Sleep (Books, 29 November 2019) is set in a dystopian future England, gripped by religious fundamentalism. Act of Oblivion, his most recent book, takes place in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and swings between Restoration England and pre-Independence, Puritan New England. Add in Conclave (2016), about the election of a new pope, and Christianity has been pivotal to his fiction. “I’ve steeped myself in religion in the last ten years in a way I never expected to.”

While the Civil War has been explored extensively in non-fiction, it has rarely been central to a novel. The titular Act of Oblivion was an act of forgetting by the returned-to-power royalists, offering clemency for those who had sided with the Commonwealth. But regicides, the men who signed Charles I death warrant, were not subject to the Act, and were hunted down and executed.

“A huge manhunt was started: 59 people signed the death warrant of Charles I, and there were about 30 left alive. They were wanted, together with anyone who had sat as a judge on the King. A manhunt would make good structure for a novel, especially if I could invent a manhunter-in-chief: someone must have co-ordinated this hunt which went on across the Continent and throughout England.”

The fictional manhunter Richard Nayler is a Catholic-leaning royalist who carries a relic of Charles I’s execution: a bloodstained scrap of linen. But Harris adds that Nayler’s disillusionment with the corruption of the newly established royal court edges his character close to atheism. Aristocratic officials’ inability to remember their functionary’s name is a running joke. Devotees will remember a similar comic name amnesia with the prime minister in The Ghost.

Nayler’s quarry are historical figures: father-in-law and son-in-law Colonel Edward Whalley and William Goffe. “Both Whalley and Goffe were among the handful of people with Cromwell when he died. And they fled to New England and went on the run. I suddenly saw I had this case of two men running, and one man coming after them. And, using this lens, I could look at the English Civil War, which seems to me curiously neglected.”

Whalley and Goffe’s escape to New England also provided an exploration of America’s religious roots. “One of the undiscovered aspects of the novel before I started, was the extent to which America is the creation of the losing side in the Civil War. A great wave of migration was Puritan, and there was a lot of money for the parliamentary cause.

“A lot of men went back to fight for the parliamentary cause, and then came back out to America again. So America, and the New England colony, is completely woven into the English Civil War. And it became the ark that carried on the ideas of getting rid of the King and putting religion at the very centre of a community. And a rugged individualism and individual relationship with God that wasn’t passed through a king or bishops.

“The English revolution and Puritan settlers is in the DNA of modern America; this is inescapable. You only have to go to America and listen to all the religious radio stations, to observe Roe v. Wade, to see the extent to which these ethical moral religious issues are absolutely central to American politics in a way that they are not in England and most of Europe.”

In Act of Oblivion, unwavering faith is contrasted with the hardship and brutality of 17th-century everyday life. In his research, Harris found that many of the Civil War and Restoration figures were on their second or third wife, because their first wife had died in childbirth. For the Roundheads on the run, in the novel, being hanged, drawn, and quartered is likened to childbirth, and therefore not to be seen as an unimaginably awful fate. This combination of faith and fearlessness gave Cromwell a formidable fighting force.

“I really saw that these fighters who were amateurs, but who beat the King’s professional army, they were not afraid to die, and they believed they would go straight to heaven. With that level of faith, it tripled the effectiveness of your fighting force. The whole history of the Civil War is about faith. And it is about the ability of people to go through extraordinary things. To actually go to America, to settle in the middle of nowhere, required an enormous act of faith in itself. It’s no surprise that it was only the Puritans en masse that were settling New England, because only they had the drive and the confidence and the belief to do it.”

Exile was considered as grim a fate as execution, and, as the novel’s fugitives are driven further into New England’s hinterland, the younger Goffe begins to wonder whether it would have been better to go bravely to his death, as other Commonwealth supporters had.

But Goffe is also sustained by his millenarian belief that the Second Coming was happening in 1666, and it was simply a matter of waiting another six years. When looking at documents from the period, the author was struck by Goffe’s letters to his wife, and how much he missed his spouse and children. As the wife of a wanted regicide, she had to forfeit all possessions, adding to the pain of Goffe’s exile and cost of staying alive. In contrast, his father-in-law, Whalley, becomes more and more pragmatic as their stay in New England lengthens.

One of the strengths of Act of Oblivion is its subtle portrayal of faith, different for each individual at different times of their life, rather than a monolithic block to drive the plot.

The son of a Nottingham printer, Harris says that he would naturally have been drawn to the parliamentary side, but writing Act of Oblivion has converted him to the King’s cause, with its embrace of life’s pleasures such as religious art and music. New England’s two-hour sermons would not have been for him. Reflecting on the part played by religion in contemporary politics, he points out that Margaret Thatcher attended church every week; Tony Blair became a Roman Catholic; his successor, Gordon Brown, was the son of a Church of Scotland minister; and Theresa May was the daughter of a vicar.

“As the influence and numbers of the Church have declined, their representation in Downing Street has rather increased.” A popular fusion of religion with politics in Britain, however, seems unlikely: “Well, obviously, nothing like it was in the 17th century. For which, if you’ll forgive the phrase, one might say, thank God.”

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for
The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson Heinemann at £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-1-5291-5175-6. The book is reviewed here.

Listen to Robert Harris in conversation with Susan Gray in this week’s Church Times podcast.


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