“Act of Oblivion”: Reasons to read it

Robert Harris has the knack of good timing. His new book is The Act of Oblivion about Charles II’s legislation of 1660 and the subsequent treatment of the Regicides who tried and beheaded his father Charles I in 1649. This historical thriller arrives just as Charles III ascends the throne. That’s a neat Carolingian coincidence without obvious connection, as yet. Oblivion is highly relevant more because it concerns so many conundrums and dilemmas which are as rich now as they ever were. Let’s enumerate some of them. But I also stress this really is a ripping yarn, an outstanding historical novel and a thriller.

British politics, by which I really mean English politics, had by the 17th Century seen at least half a millenium of evolution away from despotism and toward something like representative or at least responsive and responsible governance. Throughout, monarchs and aristocrats were losing power to merchants and lawyers, represented especially by the House of Commons. The four Stuart kings (James I and Charles I before the Interregnum of 1649 to 1660 and Charles II and James II following it) never really grasped how deep those changes had become.  And so we had the English Civil War (1642-51) in which the un-aristocratic  Oliver Cromwell and the military prowess of his Roundheads beat Charles I and his Cavaliers whose very nickname became a sloppy byword for louche romance.

Cromwell’s dream of republicanism was wrecked by the unwillingness of the military and the parliamentarians to negotiate a constitutional settlement. Indeed, Cromwell drifted or was driven toward becoming positively monarchical. Faced with the prospect of  a King Cromwell who might have been too weak or too strong, and nastily militaristic and dictatorial with it, the appeal of an authentic king, perhaps more biddable than Oliver, propelled Charles II to the throne.  Thus Britain had a sort of re-run of notable features of the classical Roman Republic as it was taken over by an apparently populist but certainly muscular Strong Man. Except Britain, after the constitutional failures of its second Carolingian experience, produced the reformist, non-revolutionary settlement of 1688 which has survived to the present.

Harris’s new book strongly mirrors aspects of his thrilling Cicero trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, 2006-18). The earlier books prompt us to spot ripe Classical analogies with politics ever since and everywhere, including the excitements in Oblivion and certainly in our own time. (Try reading Harris in discussion with Tom  Holland in The Spectator, 17 December 2022 for sharp stuff on this. Or even, RDN on the classics.)

In Oblivion, Robert Harris, in a series of brilliant story-telling moves, gives us the failed English bloody republican revolution and more. The period matters because the 1660s explain why deposing James II in 1688 and  replacing him in a bloodless coup was wonderful but didn’t deserve its popular moniker, “The Glorious Revolution”. It wasn’t a convulsion and it freed us from convulsions. In fact, this process of reformist compromise painlessly delivered the constitutional monarchy – the idea and practice of The Crown in Parliament – which we know, and stupidly under-rate and abuse – today. In 1688 we settled on the Crown to represent an ideal of order and liberty rather than be bossed around by a king or an authoritarian clergyman or a military strong man or some Johnny-come-lately rabble-rouser.  As the Royalist regicide-hunter in Harris’s book remarks, in effect: Charles II maybe a trollop and a chump, but the Crown is better than anyone who wears it. In 1688, that was the insight we enshrined and institutionalised.

I have laid out this process because Oblivion  very properly doesn’t. The novel is so readable one barely notices the history lessons it does have. And yet youngsters may be getting from it their first proper exposure to this extraordinary period, whilst it propels old-timers painlessly through historical material they half-remember from school. Young and old alike, and for different reasons, often fail to defend the potty, ramshackle, Ruritanian flummery of the 1688 constitutional settlement. We don’t properly appreciate the backstory and dignity – the poetry – it bestows on the hard-nosed electoral and Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary trade-offs, negotiations and bargains which we can’t quite like or admire, but which are the nearest any society gets to peaceable liberty under the law. Only the Dutch could claim to have been quicker off the mark in finding such a settlement.

One enormous reason to be grateful to be a modern Briton is that there is no great physical risk to picking the losing side in a political argument. Harris’s Oblivion gives us a brilliant portrait of the drama and killing dangers of our ancestors’ historical rows. The Stuarts were, variously, pretty devout Roman Catholics. They seemed to hang on to very old ideas of the Divine Right of Kings, with its sense of regal infallibility.  Their republican opponents were Bible-bashing Puritans, but deeply-riven as between those Calvinist extremists who believed in predestination and the imminence of the Millennium and those more ordinarily Protestant Puritans who merely renounced the Pope. Harris beautifully works these tensions as they play out between the two Cromwellian regicides the pursuit of whom is the book’s major thread. But their royalist pursuer is also given a conflicted nature, and it too is crucial to this thriller. Indeed, Robert Harris’s genius is to make both the prey and the hunter sympathetic to the reader, though their creeds seem utterly opposed and irreconcilable. Both prey and hunter are driven to such straits that they fear for their sanity. But Harris shows that their humanity is not in doubt.

In effect, Harris challenges us to interrogate ourselves: whose side would we have been on? (A good novel on slavery would do the same.)

I instinctively tend to the Royalist and Roman Catholic cause, though I have no great loyalty to anything, or royalism or religious faith. I would like to adhere to the Cavalier – extravagant, show-off, devil-may-care – style of living and expression supposedly represented by the theatrical and theatre-loving Stuarts. That is my not-brave self wishing it were bolder. But I fear I have some Puritan traits, not least when I sense I am doctrinaire and moralistic. And worse, when I find myself thinking that I should kowtow to convention for safety’s sake.

Harris is invaluable here: he conveys to us the nature of the beliefs his characters have. But he show us, too, belief’s narrowing effect  on his characters. This is highly relevant when we see “Comfort Zone” thinking and “Cancellation Culture” having a force whose re-emergence will surprise us less because we have read Harris’s account of how our ancestors went on. We may think that modern secular societies are free of the idea that some people are “saved” and special, and others are condemned to a sort of darkness. But we must, surely, know that socialism has always inculcated in its followers a sense of moral superiority which conservatism seldom indulges in? And the modern phenomenon of Woke precisely looks like an exercise in “liberal” triumphalism which is the antithesis of real liberalism.

Fans of Robert Harris already knew from his The Second Sleep (2019) that it is his special delight to persuade us both that historical characters are quite like us, but also that their interior being is as different from ours as are their exterior realities – their plumbing arrangements, for instance. The Second Sleep posits that in a future post-apocalypse world, people return to habits of thought and behaviour we moderns think are extinct. It subtly makes the covert point that people may at any time, including the present, revert to blinkers.

It is well worth stressing that Harris is in great company as a fine, but above all an imaginative, historical novelist. He is at least as good as (though much less romantic than) Anya Seton (whose The Winthrop Woman, 1958, at points coincides with Oblivion, not least in its portrayal of early European immigration to north America). In similar territory – and in producing a sort of magic realism – Harris is also well on a par with Martin Cruz Smith, especially as seen in the American’s historical novel, Rose (1996), with its own claustrophic 19th Century scenes (but also in his Chernobyl and Manhattan Project novels). A word on Harris’s handling of 17th Century north America. Oblivion rather wonderfully locates one of its regicides in the trade in beaver fur which, one might add, connects the felt hat in Vermeer’s Officer and a Laughing Girl (c1665-1660) with Americas’ indigenous indian population and is now in the Frick Musuem which stands on the very ground in question in Harris’s story.

I want to give a last reason why Act of Oblivion is so relevant. As much as the Civil War has slipped out of our everyday recollection, and as much as the flow of events which produced the Civil War, the Interregnum, the Restoration and then the “Glorious Revolution” are all so highly relevant to us now, so are other 17th Century convulsions. Harris shows, as part of his thriller (and not as a history lesson), how the Restoration was swiftly followed by a small war with the Dutch, a vicious Plague and the horrific Great Fire of London. Harris is quite stern, perhaps unforgiving, in his treatment of the Stuarts. Maybe that’s the old lefty in him. But he does show Charles II grasping a brilliant, redemptive chance to be useful, as he went amongst the Great Fire’s ruination and victims, organising and rallying a response. It’s a premonition of a future British monarch’s role in the 20th Century Blitz. We now see or have seen: a war in Ukraine, Covid and the Grenfell Tower fire. These 21st Century events are different in all sorts of ways from their 17th Century antecedents. But the tumbling, disorientating river of events across a few decades, four centuries ago, gives us a wonderful, kind-of  handle on  what we are experiencing now. Well, not perhaps a handle, but at least a perspective, the meaning of which we can pick over for ourselves.

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Publication date

03 January 2023