Oh believe me, Justin, I more or less agree. It's mightily flawed. It's just that it's one of those books whose flaws - huge as they were - didn't stop me from loving it despite myself..
Yes, I think the main problem is that it's two different books shunted together. The main character is two different people, with no clear depiction of how she got from one to the other. Almost as if he wrote the first two-thirds of the book and then thought - sheesh - I forgot I was supposed to make her a saint.
There is a hell of a lot wrong with the book - structure-wise, characterisation-wise and message-wise. But I find myself not wanting to analyse it too closely. For me he couldn't write a dull sentence if he tried, so I take it one sentence at a time and enjoy what there is to enjoy and leave it at that!
Interestingly, we had our local Historical Novel Society chapter meeting the other day and our theme was death. I read them the last bit of Fausta's death scene in the dry room - and they loved it.
I hope I didn't imply it was a great piece of literature. But an interesting work nonetheless - if nothing else just because it was Waugh's only historical novel.
OK, I've read Helena.....I have this growing impression that I am a particular, critical and fussy reader. My overall impression of the novel is that Waugh's cynical outlook on human nature (for which I feel his first disastrous marriage was to a large extent responsible) could not rise above itself and capture that dynamic optimism of a saint. When he writes of Helena in her saintly phase, towards the end of her life, it reads like something out of Butler's Lives. How does Helena go from world-weary diffidence to the fervour of her stay in Jerusalem? After all she was baptized only in old age. Psychologically it just doesn't tally.
Waugh is better at describing people whose minds and hearts are in the World, capital letter, but who are open just enough to acquire a faith that will see them, at least in the essentials, down on the straight path.
Sorry for this load of cold water. Waugh does a brilliant job of Fausta, and the faults of Constantine were as he described them, though on the other hand there was, under all that calculation, a sincerity that seemed to grow with time. I think he was a complex individual, and his ambiguous position made him more so. His murder of Fausta and Crispus created a huge stir and I think he really regretted it, and not just politically either. Was all his churchbuilding just for personal glory, or was he trying to give the Church everything he could, since he could not bring himself to give what was really required?
Anyhow thanks for putting me on it. A very interesting read.
Personally, I loved it. It was one of my favourite reads of last year. I haven't read much of him but I don't think he could write a dull sentence and it carried me along on the dialogue alone. You're right - it wasn't well received at the time, though he said it was his favourite of his novels. It is not without flaws - he wrote the novel out of serious religious conviction, and it doesn't really work - partly because he only really gets down to this business right at the end of the novel, which is the least enjoyable and convincing bit.
I'm trying to think now what the rest of the group thought of it. Some were put off by the religious message (more that it didn't work with the light tone of the book than by the message itself). But generally I think we all enjoyed the writing and warmed to the main character, even whilst acknowledging its flaws.
If you haven't read it, it's pretty short, so worth giving it a go if just out of curiosity.