Act of Oblivion by best-selling and local author, Robert Harris, was chosen as LitFest’s 2023 Big Town Read. Now in its eleventh year the event, run in partnership with Wiltshire libraries, is always a highlight of the festival and this year was no exception. The Town Hall was full to capacity to hear Harris speak about the novel and the sheer volume of historical research that was required in its creation.
The idea for Act of Oblivion came from a Tweet Harris saw about the greatest manhunt of the seventeenth-century. The hunt for regicides, who had signed Charles I’s death warrant went on for decades and went across Europe and the New World where many of the puritans had fled. Harris was intrigued. How did they go about it? Who organised it?
Harris told the audience, “I was fascinated by the mechanics and so I read dry tomes about government in the seventeenth century and established that the Privy Council, presided by the Lord Chancellor had a Regicide Committee with a secretary/clerk. Who would get such a job? Why would they want it?”
Two of the regicides, Colonel Edward Whalley and Colonel William Goffe, were father and son-in-law. They fled to New England and were found guilty in absentia of high treason. Harris commented, “I found the relationship between the two men interesting and New England at that time would be interesting. The man after them was clearly a fanatic.”
Harris had found his characters and then settled to the research. “I love research and in the second lockdown I read everything I could on Whalley and Goffe.” The problem was how to make two puritan colonels interesting. Through letters that exist Harris discovered that Ned Whalley was more of a religious moderate than his son-in-law and thought this could lead to tension in the relationship that the reader could relate to. He also discovered that the two colonels led a raid on the Duke of Somerset’s Christmas mass and this gave him the idea of putting the antagonist regicide hunter in the congregation thus giving a personal twist to explain his fervour in hunting them down.
Harris believes that the seventeenth-century is not talked about enough. There is, he believes, too much focus on the Tudors. However, “the revolution changed England and changed the world.” Before Cromwell, England had no army which was then formed and grew to 40,000, the best army in the world. “Cromwell wanted to export the revolution to the Caribbean and to New England thus beginning the British Empire.”
Carrying out the research for the book changed Harris’s own ideas about the seventeenth-century. “I always thought I would have been a Parliamentarian but the more I read the more I disliked the religious fanaticism and rather took against them. I had some sympathy with Charles and the way he conducted himself.”
“Most research,” says Harris, “never gets in the book but you feel you are immersing yourself in their world and you discover the language and how people spoke to each other.” He read all of Cromwell’s speeches and was able to incorporate a lot of this information in the novel in the form of Whalley’s memoirs.
Each of Harris’s fourteen novels are set in different historical time periods and in different parts of the world but he always explores the politics. “Politics, the exercise of power, and political organisations and how they work, has always interested me.”
He says, “History is not dead but vibrant and a mirror to us. It’s fascinating to write about these lost time periods and not be superior to them. Cicero’s Rome was superior in so many ways.”
Harris is writing a new book set in 1914/15. “I’m fascinated by the colossal wealth of Britain at that time. Britain was an enormously powerful country and to have lost so much power and territory in such a short time is unprecedented.” We eagerly await its publication.