Review by Jinny Webber
A manhunt across the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven in 1660 drives Robert Harris’ latest novel, Act of Oblivion.
Two officers in Oliver Cromwell’s army, marked as traitors in England for signing the death warrant for King Charles I, flee to the Massachusetts colony in 1660. Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel Willian Goffe were among the 59 signatories of the death warrant.
After Cromwell’s Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists, they executed the king in 1649. But not long after Cromwell’s death, his Commonwealth collapsed. In 1660 King Charles II returned from exile, restoring the monarchy. He proclaimed an Act of Oblivion, granting amnesty to those who opposed him during the Commonwealth years, all but murderers, in particular the men who condemned his father to death. Along with other surviving regicides, Whalley and Goffe would be hung, mutilated, drawn and quartered, the gory English penalty for traitors. Instead they sailed to the Colonies.
Some regicides had died of natural causes since 1649, and some were caught and thrown into the Tower, later surrendering in hope, mistakenly, of mercy. A few fled to the Switzerland, Holland, and Germany before the ports closed, and the rest hid in England. The fictional Richard Nayler, regicide secretary to the Privy Council, was determined to flush them out, especially Whalley and Goffe whom he traced across the Atlantic.
Although on the run, the two men believed they would be among friends. After all, colonists in Massachusetts were Puritan, supporting the ideals of the Commonwealth, not monarchies, and some colonists had fought in Cromwell’s army. Even so, Whalley and Goffe soon realize they must go into hiding. They’d not imagined such an adversary as Richard Nayler, determined to seize king-killers no matter what it takes.
Robert Harris says what caught his imagination is the chase. Richard Nayler isn’t a bounty-hunter, though there’s a hundred-pound reward on each of their heads, dead or alive. He’s as zealous a Royalist, in his way, as Will Goffe is a Puritan. Even more, he has a strong personal reason for capturing the traitors, and whatever religion he may once have had, now he believes in no god. Only revenge.
Ned Whalley, though a Puritan, is not a religious zealot. He regrets the day he brought Goffe home and his daughter Frances fell for him. Will has a charismatic personality and is a fiery orator, but his religious faith is based on a strict interpretation of the Scriptures. Frances married him and is and mother of their five children. Ned senses the irony: by fleeing with Goffe, he’s the one yoked to him, perhaps for life. Ned is the calming voice—as much as a man on the run can be.
As the absence of her husband and father stretches out, Frances becomes a third voice in the novel. Ned writes a personal memoir for her, flashbacks to the war and his role as cousin to Oliver Cromwell, thus part of his army from the beginning. Through his reminiscences we get a full, suspenseful picture of the war.
More than a hundred years later, American soldiers would defeat the Redcoats, as Oliver Cromwell’s troops defeated red-coated Royalists, but in the end his Commonwealth lasted barely over a decade. The recent coronation of King Charles III shows the monarchy survived three centuries and counting since the Parliamentarians’ brief attempt to create a republic.
One of the appeals of Harris’ novel is his depiction of the Colonies before the War of Independence. Because most colonists left England for religious freedom, they, like Goffe, are more intensely Puritan than their counterparts in their home country. Settlers in the colony of New Haven believe in Mosaic Law and consider their leader a Moses. They know the Scriptures backwards and forwards and live by Old Testament dictums. The religiosity of New Haven, compared to slightly more moderate Massachusetts and Connecticut, shows the autonomy of the colonies. Each has its own governor and legislature. What led to the American revolution a century later was largely the attempts by Britain to interweave the colonies’ individual finances with their own.
However, though colonists drove the indigenous tribes from their lands into the forests, in 1660 they live relatively in peace. Indians, as Harris refers to them, are helpful when Whalley and Goffe appear in their woodland settlements.
Initially chapters of Act of Oblivion alternate between Ned Whalley and Richard Nayler, and we can’t really side with either. Each man has powerful motivations and is desperate for his own reasons, an effective basis for a chase. Puritan beliefs seem extreme today and Royalists believe kings are divinely ordained. Harris humanizes both.
The novel is an imagined reconstruction of the aftermath of the English Civil War, with vivid details that enhance the story and characters. Overall, Harris is true to the dates and historical characters involved. In addition he includes a bibliography. King Philip’s War, for example, really happened, and there’s more to explore than this novel hints at. The bibliography shows not only how much research he did, but how much is missing from historical accounts that he had to create. Robert Harris is a master.