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Evelyn Waugh’s Helena is a saint for modern times—not an otherworldly ascetic or a heroic martyr, but a woman who “discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it”…

st-helenaThis year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), Catholic convert and novelist. I had never read anything by Waugh and thought it was time I gave him a go, especially since I love English Catholic literary figures. Problem is, Waugh specialized in fiction and I don’t. So, I decided to try something with a little history in it: Waugh’s 1950 historical novel Helena, which he called his favorite of his own works. The novel recounts the life of St. Helena, Roman Empress, mother of the Emperor Constantine and finder of the True Cross. The excavation and subsequent finding of the cross forms the climax of the book. The earlier parts recount Helena’s girlhood, marriage to the Roman civil official Constantius Chlorus (who later became emperor), mothering of Constantine (who would, in turn, become the first Christian emperor of Rome), and conversion to Christianity.

There are many question marks in Helena’s life, so Waugh felt free to fill out and embellish his tale. For one thing, he makes Helena British-born (“Britain is as likely a place as any other,” Waugh explains in his preface). And he paints a fresco of life in the late Roman Empire, depicting a world filled with corruption, decadence, and the social pretensions of the soi-disant sophisticated. The pervasive comic tone of the novel took me by surprise. Waugh was a wicked satirist, a man who loved to rail against the modern world and its inanities. He was also a writer who reveled in the pure use of language. In Helena, Waugh finds parallels between Helena’s era and his own and satirizes both. To make the story more vivid and contemporary he gives his characters the lingo of British aristocrats of his own day, like Jeeves and Bertie Wooster transplanted to the fourth century.

By means of this arch speech, Waugh draws an anatomy of snobbery with characters that run the gamut from vacuous to fatuous. Waugh’s Constantine is a conceited airhead whose adoption of Christianity is done mainly for political convenience and show. The faith often becomes a mere “game of words” and the things of God are frequently made into political footballs. In one scene a character chatters on about the recent goings-on at the Council of Nicea:

All that invoking of the Holy Ghost put things on the wrong footing. It was purely a question of practical convenience… I mean, we must have progress. Homoiousion is definitely dated. Everyone who really counts is for homousion—or is it the other way round?

Clearly, it’s when Christianity becomes merely fashionable that it’s in danger of losing its core. In another scene, Waugh even lampoons the pretensions of modern art. Constantine, inspecting a frieze being created in his honor, criticizes the artist:

Your figures are lifeless and expressionless as dummies… I’ve seen better work done by savages. Why, damn it, there’s something there that looks like a doll that’s supposed to be Me.

Constantine wants the artist to copy the figures on the Arch of Trajan. The artist demurs:

“One might, I suppose, contrive some sort of pastiche,” he said. “It would not be the least significant.”

“Damn significance,” said Constantine. “Can you do it or can’t you?”

“Precisely like that? It is a type of representational work that requires a technical virtuosity that you may or may not find attractive—personally, I rather do—but the modern artist…”

Can you do it?

“No.”

But behind all this delicious British comedy is a serious purpose. For Waugh, the significance of the True Cross was that it called people back to the actuality of the Christian faith: to the bedrock physical fact of the Passion and Redemption. This sense of actuality was in danger of being weakened in Constantine’s time due to the influence of Gnosticism, which devalued the things of this world. The faith risked becoming something abstract, disembodied. Declaring his intention to build a pair of new churches dedicated to “wisdom” and “peace,” Constantine, in Waugh’s novel, tells the pope: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.”

It was much the same temptation in Waugh’s own day: a modern gnosticism that would whitewash the story of Christ, removing the blood of the Cross; a political utopianism that would try to create an antiseptically perfect environment for man—in short, socialism and Communism.

Helena comes to the truth of the Cross step by step. Early on in the novel, she is established as a young girl with a questioning mind, quizzical and skeptical, a searcher after fact. She loves literature and horseback riding—a metaphor for the “chase” which will lead her to the True Cross. Later, she is surrounded by many fashionable mystery cults and philosophies. She questions them all because they are based in metaphysical speculations rather than concrete fact. She sees through their vaporous evasions. Her cynical skepticism is the purifying force that leads her to the true faith.

Perhaps Waugh saw something of himself in Helena, a “latecomer” who had “a tedious journey to make to the truth.” Like her, he was surrounded by fashionable new religions but saw through them to the truth of Catholic Christianity. And one senses the famously cantankerous Waugh trying to come to terms with his misanthropic tendencies: In one scene Helena, in the streets of Rome, sees herself at one with the teeming mass of humanity that makes up the Church, from the lawyer and his clerk to the “barrow man grilling his garlic sausages in the gutter.”

Helena is not quite what one expects of a devotional book about a saint. And Waugh’s Helena, as one early critic objected, “doesn’t seem like a saint”—to which Waugh responded that “saints are simply souls in heaven.” Waugh’s Helena is a saint for modern times—not an otherworldly ascetic or a heroic martyr, but a woman who “discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.” Her appeal to Waugh was the questing and spunky spirit that led her to search out the True Cross when those around her said it couldn’t be done.

It strikes me that Catholicism needs souls like Evelyn Waugh, part of whose vocation was to mock the world and human folly, whose poisoned verbal darts functioned as purifying satire. “Above all the babble of her age and ours, [Helena] makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is hope.” Waugh gives us plenty of the babble of Helena’s age (and ours), but he also gives us the hope that comes only from the “unpleasant association” of the Cross.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from  Crisis Magazine (November 2016). 

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4 replies to this post
  1. If nothing else Waugh as polemicist would be a stalwart defender of the faith in these corrupt times. But of course he would give more.

  2. I go to St. Helen’s parish in Westfield, NJ, and one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read a little about St. Helen. Looking forward to reading this!

    Besides finding the True Cross, St. Helen also built several churches. I think that’s something we also need to do today, both in the literal sense and figurative sense.

  3. I haven’t read “Helena”, but I read “Vile Bodies” and then the much more self consciously Catholic WWII “Sword of Honor” trilogy. I laughed more at the former, but I loved Guy Crouchback and was sorry to finish the latter.

  4. Evelyn Waugh was devastated by the changes in the liturgy following Vatican II. He died on Easter Sunday, 1966 after having attended the Tridentine Mass that morning. I would highly recommend Brideshead Revisited.

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