2009: 50. Helena

“Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named which struggled and fluttered below the rain-swept walls, there sat at an upper window a princess and a slave reading a story which even then was old: or, rather, to be entirely prosaic, on the wet afternoon of the Nones of May in the year (as it was computed later) of Our Lord 237, in the city of Colchester, Helena, red-haired, youngest daughter of Coel, Paramount Chief of the Trinovantes, gazed into the rain while her tutor read the Illiad of Homer in a Latin paraphrase.”

Helena, Evelyn Waugh

This is a strange little book - although I am quite a fan of Waugh, I’d never heard of it.  In fact, I actually picked it up on my office’s “free book” shelf.  I’ve often commented on how I didn’t like Waugh’s satires at first, because my first introduction to his work was Brideshead Revisited, and accordingly, I wasn’t expecting black humor when I turned to say, A Handful of Dust.  Helena has neither the black humor of most of his novels, or the emotional heft of Brideshead.  It is a historical fiction, and like many of Waugh’s more serious works, a religious novel (Waugh was a Catholic convert, and like his colleague Graham Greene his Catholicism permeates his more serious works.* 

It tells the story of the mother of Emperor Constantine (who converted the Roman empire to Christianity), and who is allegedly the person who found the true cross.**  The book takes her search quite seriously, pointing out that it was only a couple of hundred years and that we modern folks are in possession of wooden objects that are that old.  Funny to spend all that effort trying to justify such a story - makes me feel alien from that form of my own religion...

Anyway, as a novel Helena touches on serious topics, particularly the meaning of religion, but it is also sort of light and goofy, and while I enjoyed reading it, and read it quickly, I can’t say it’s an unqualified success.  It is just too strange - intentionally goofy history combined with serious religious ideals means that the novel is more a curiosity than anything else - more for the Waugh fan than the casual reader.  I did like this one quote - so much of religion praises the simple faithful, and as a person who has a much, much more complicated relationship with faith and belief, I thought this was a nice sentiment.  This was the one part of the novel where I thought Waugh and my Catholicism might just have something in common.  Here is Helena’s own prayer:

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate.  Let them not quite be forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

*In no way should this comment be seen as any sort of slur on Waugh (or Greene) - I am a Catholic myself!


** The book states (and I guess this might be true) that despite our scepticism when we see reliquaries, that if you add up all the alleged fragments that are in existence, it is waaay less than a cross would be.  Who knows if that is so, but I thought that was an interesting factoid.


Date/Place Completed:  April 2009, D.C.

Categories:  Fiction; Commuting Book, Evelyn Waugh Project

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017