Destiny Our Choice, by John Attenborough
When I saw this book in the Legacy Institute library, I was curious to read it, since I have a fairly strong interest in the English Civil War (being a fairly strong republican with a fairly strong hostility toward the excesses of divine right views of monarchy in my own personal political beliefs, as is proper given my American upbringing). The book did not disappoint me. Even though both the book and its author are obscure enough not to have wikipedia links, Henry Ireton himself is remembered as being a strong-willed leader whose relatively obscure gentry background did not hinder his educational attainments or his political rise in the period before and during the English Civil War.
The book follows, as might be easily understood, a chronological account of Henry Ireton’s rise from modest origins as the eldest son of a widowed gentry lady to a position of high respect and authority in Cromwellian England before his untimely death due to illness outside the city of Limerick in one of Ireland’s many savage wars. Besides a fairly accurate portrayal of Ireton’s behavior (the author definitely takes a positive attitude toward Ireton, as opposed to the nasty libels that came from Royalist pens and from the portrayal of Ireton as a Machiavellian schemer in the 1970 film Cromwell).
One of the distinctive elements of this novel is how little time the author spends talking about Henry’s romantic life (by all means, there is one obligatory scene of fleshly marital bliss near the middle of the book, as Henry marries Oliver Cromwell’s oldest daughter), and how much time is spent talking about the intrigues of various fictitious personages including the illegitimate son of a friend of his from his Oxford days. Such human touches, while unnecessary, appear to have been done in order to soften what must have been a very imperious and decisive man. Henry Ireton appears to be a man of fairly stubborn temper as well as considerable intelligence and ambition, and having him be the mentor to an honest and effusive foundling appears to soften his character a bit to make him more appealing to modern sensibilities than he may have been in real life. It is an understandable choice.
At any rate, this novel succeeds wonderfully in portraying a brave and intelligent man in an honest and sympathetic way. It is all the more worthwhile given that Henry Ireton, despite his considerable importance in such historical incidents as the prelude to the battle of Naseby, Pride’s Purge, the preparations of the execution of King Charles I, as well as his close relationship to Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, has been largely ignored except for those wishing to libel him. Whatever its faults from a specifically historical view of the time, the book itself is vivid and realistic and leads the reader to a deeper investigation of its bright but fierce protagonist.
Even more notably, John Attenborough manages to deal with the puzzled relationship of choice and destiny in the novel, looking at how the best intentioned efforts of people in historical crises can lead them far beyond their intentions by the momentum of the times. We may, like the president of Trinity College, fancy ourselves to be chessmasters moving around other people like pieces on the board, but in the end we are all faced with the delicate and complicated relationship of both influencing others and being influenced by our times and situations. Henry Ireton, neither famous enough to have attracted a great deal of legends about him nor obscure enough to be utterly forgotten, is a worthy character to explore these twists and turns of fate and free will. All in all, it is a well done period piece about a man who deserves to be vastly better known.