Mater Augusti

February 29, 2008

Helena (1950)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 1963)
159 p. First reading.

A recent multi-volume edition of Evelyn Waugh’s writings from the prestigious Everyman’s Library included his travel writings, his short stories, and the full complement of his novels — or did it? On closer inspection, one little novel, Helena, was left out. Was it for legal reasons, or because of an unfortunate oversight, or was the novel’s reception really so poor that it was left out intentionally? In any case, its absence from the list piqued my curiosity, so I tracked down a copy.

It’s really quite good, and hardly deserves to be neglected. Granted, not everyone has an appetite for ecclesiastical legends, so a novel about St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, and her finding of the True Cross in fourth-century Jerusalem may not have extremely wide appeal. Certainly readers with an allergy to piety won’t like the book, but what about those of us who have no such impediment? Indeed, I have a liking for books on the lives of saints, though I’ll readily admit that the really successful efforts are rare (Frederick Buechner’s novels Godric and Brendan are the best examples of this genre that I know). On top of the interesting story, the writing is elegant and polished.

He follows the tradition that Helena was born in England. She enters Roman circles of power by marrying the rising official Constantius. She is a pagan, as are most of her associates, but she irritates the religious teachers of her sphere by always asking how they know the stories of the gods, and where and when the events in the stories took place. She wants religion to be tangible and real. Ultimately, this desire is what draws her to Christianity, to which she converts as an older woman. Waugh leaves the conversion itself off-stage, but in the closing chapters of the book he follows her to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross, that most tangible relic of the earthly life of Christ. I very much liked the way that Waugh segued, in the closing pages, from Helena’s time to our own, and from a novel to a historical record. It reminded me of those film scenes in which the camera pulls away from the story’s characters and suddenly emerges from the pages of a book, which sits comfortably, all the while, on a reading desk.

Perhaps the popularity problem for Helena is that, fine as the book is, it doesn’t feel like a book by Evelyn Waugh, and so tends to be set aside by Waughians. There is something to this idea. The book is a fairly straightforward historical novel, and has few of the usual markers of Waugh’s writing: no satire, no comic characters — in fact, very little humour at all. Without that spark, the tone of the book is more muted than usual, and the fact that he is tied to a reasonably faithful historical narrative means that his normally unpredictable plot developments are subdued. It is not, then, one of Waugh’s best books, but there are great crowds of lesser talents for whom it would be their masterwork. I repeat: it doesn’t deserve to be neglected.

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