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Helena by Evelyn Waugh

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Justin Swanton
Posts: 173
Joined: February 2012
Location: Durban, South Africa

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Post by Justin Swanton » Mon March 5th, 2012, 5:31 pm

Waugh called this book "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write". I would amend that to 'far the best thing he ever tried to write.'

Briefly, the book recreates the life of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and credited with finding the cross of Christ hidden at Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

The book's style oscillates between a fictional historical novel and a traditional Life of a Saint. The first three-quarters documents Helena's life, from her hypothetical youth as a Briton chieftain's daughter, through her marriage to Constantius Chlorus, a high-ranking Roman officer on a secret visit to Britain, her raising of Constantine, their son, to her semi-recluse life in Illyria and Treves, until Constantine's accession to the throne and his seizure of Rome. The mood of this section is one of cynical futility: Helena, despite hobnobbing with the highest people in the empire, really has no reason to live except tend her villa and while away the time.

In the last quarter of the book the real story starts. Constantine defeats and kills his rival Maxentius and takes Rome, and Helena for the first time in her life visits the city - to find a hotbed of intrigue with her son at the epicentre. Despite having become a Christian in the interim, Helena does not appear that much affected by Constantine's behaviour, not even by his killing of his son Crispus and his wife Fausta. She seems to shake a weary head and then think up something new to do - go to Jerusalem and find the cross of Christ.

Then, according to Waugh, she becomes a saint, living in spartan simplicity at a convent in Jerusalem, waiting at table, praying for hours on end, fasting. Waugh does not attempt to delineate the process by which she was tranformed from world-weary indifference to fervent sainthood. Just one day she is a cynic, the next a saint. My impression, on reading this section, is that Waugh does not understand the psychological and spiritual reality of sainthood - what makes an individual a saint within him or herself, as oppose to how it might appear to observers.

Waugh never quite shakes off the satirical cynicism his other books are noted for, with its sense of the futility of human endeavour. At times his Catholic component rises to the surface: 'But as the news [of the Edict of Milan granting peace to the Church] spread everywhere in Christendom, from every altar a great wind of prayer gathered and mounted, lifted the whole squat smokey dome of the Ancient World, swept it off and up like the thatch of a stable, and threw open the calm and brilliant prospect of measureless space.’ But it never really permeates the novel, whereas the intrigue, ruthlessness and careless neglect of men of power, does. Waugh is more in his element describing what is wrong with the world rather than what is right with it.

Constantine is portrayed as a monster of egotism, suborning the Church and its treasures to his own glory (including making one of the crucifixion nails into a bit for his horse). His faults are as Waugh describes them, but there was an undercurrent of sincerity under Constantine’s political calculation that grew stronger as the years passed. I don’t believe everything this emperor did was done purely for political advancement and self-glorification. He could not give to God what he knew was required of him, but he spared no effort in giving everything else. He was a complex man, made more so by his ambiguous position as pagan Pontifex Maximus and supporter of Christianity. For Waugh he is just another Nero.

As a final note, I think Waugh is offsides in his treatment of Helena’s husband, Constantius Chlorus. In his foreward, Waugh states, “I have given Constantius Chlorus a mistress, although he was reputed to be unusually chaste.” This fictional mistress is maintained by Constantius for several years, then murdered by him. Why create that slur?

The book is well-written and readable, but in my opinion misses the mark. A pity as there is so much fictional potential in Helena’s story.
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Tue March 6th, 2012, 5:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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