In 1642, civil war broke out in England. King Charles I and forces loyal to him, faced a rebellion led by Puritan religious fundamentalists. The rebels captured and beheaded Charles I in 1649. His son, Charlies II, continued the fight for two more years, before fleeing into exile. Oliver Cromwell then established his Protectorate, which endured, rather shakily, until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Robert Harris sets his historical novel, Act of Oblivion, in the aftermath of these events. With Charles II back on the throne, his government passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, which issued a general pardon to anyone who had fought against the royalists. However, a small group of people were exempt from the Act, notably anyone who had signed the death warrant of Charles I. These ‘regicides’ were to be tracked down and executed. Some were captured immediately, others handed themselves in, hoping in vain for clemency, while a third group went on the run. Act of Oblivion is an imaginative reconstruction of the lives of regicides Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who spent years evading capture in the American colonies.
In some ways the relationship between this book and actual history is loose to say the least. The character around which the story revolves, Richard Naylor, fanatical regicide hunter in-chief, never existed, although someone like him might have done. But before we get too purist, it’s worth remembering that creating any kind of historical narrative requires choosing some events and not others, which inevitably denies the messy nature of what actually happened. You could say that Richard Naylor is a personification of this artificial shaping process, a fictional centre around which historical events can be arranged.
Another typical way to arrange history is to choose events likely to resonate with present-day readers. In this case, potential readers live in a world where national division has increased in various major countries, and where extremists have become more prominent. The Civil War, it goes without saying, was another time of national division and extremism.
So a story playing fast and loose with history, actually tells us much about how history gets written. Richard Naylor as an artificial shaping device, lurks in every history book, whether he is acknowledged or not. And as for the resonance of the chosen subject for contemporary readers, this book offers its audience the chance to explore the complexities of conflict and fanaticism at one remove. Act of Oblivion makes it clear that divisions, of even the most vicious nature, hide a reality where enemies have more in common than they realise. Robert Harris doesn’t have to make up facts about people on opposing sides in the Civil War being friends, or that moderation and zealotry were present in both the rebel and royalist camps. Overall, this compelling historical story is truthful about the contradictory nature of human relationships, rather than about the exact nature of events, which we can never fully know anyway. That’s what makes this a good novel, rather than a dodgy history book