Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Robert Harris’s new book has at its centre The Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660, an Act of the English Parliament.  It was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth period, apart from certain serious crimes that were identified, and people named in the act who were involved in the regicide of Charles I. It also said that no action was to be taken against those involved at any later time. In effect, the Interregnum was to be legally forgotten.

Although the act is often viewed from the perspective of those who were not pardoned and thus condemned to death, the debate in Parliament continued almost every day for over two months and names were added to, and taken off, the list of those who were not to be pardoned.

One of the people to benefit directly from the Act was John Milton, who was released from prison. However, Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe were not so fortunate and were forced to cross the Atlantic.

Research around Harris’s topic reveals that the author has used a considerable number of historical events in the story. An ‘Oblivion’ committee took upon itself the task of discovering and trying the executioners of the king. The escapees were cared for by villagers mentioned in the story. The escapees pretended to travel on to Milford but doubled back and hid among their enemies. Both were committed to 1666 as the year when Christ would return to Earth. (It’s a shame that Harris did not re-tell the story of the Angel of Hadley, the occasion when Goffe, dressed as a Roundhead, charged and dispersed the Indians who were attacking Hadley). Although Harris maintains that the only fictional character in the story is Richard Nayler, it seems odd that a James Nayler (1618 – 60) should have held such a prominent role in Restoration politics, in his case as a Quaker.

As is expected of this author’s work, the settings are authentic both in terms of what one can expect of the scenery that remains unaltered and in terms of changes happening because of human action. Castles, the homes of knights and their ladies, have a live-long traditionality about them when viewed as the seat of family living. One castle is not all that much different from another. There is the jousting yard and the stables, a living place and a living area. When the author allows his subjects to travel overseas, the reader is compelled to see traditions, customs and habits that have changed to meet new conditions. New locations require new ways of doing things. One could never imagine going to sleep in the old country only to find oneself involved before morning in a struggle with a mountain lion.

The style of fighting in the new country is consistent with that found in the old because innovation takes time to develop. People live as they have always done until they take on innovations more suited to altered conditions. People rarely alter to become different beings and, for this reason, Whalley and Goffe could expect to find people in the new lands that were at least sympathetic to their own points of view. This is precisely what they did find.

Whalley and Goffe in real life lived an adventurous life, a most uncomfortable life, a life in which their religious views were never forgotten. Harris has employed his considerable writing skills in bringing to us an adventurous tale that is clearly based on careful research. It crackles with action.

Act of Oblivion


By Robert Harris


ISBN: 978-1-52-915176-3

$32.99; 480 pp

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