Evelyn Waugh is probably best known for his 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited—which I have never read. In fact I have read only one of his books. But that one, Helena, is very good despite a number of peculiarities and shortcomings.
Published in 1950, it concerns the titular empress and saint, who lived during the 200s and 300s A.D. and was the mother of Constantine the Great. Legend has it that she was mysteriously guided to the exact location of “the true cross”—the wood upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Up to that point its whereabouts had been unknown.
Waugh stresses in the book’s preface that Helena is only a legend. It is not a true story in the strictest sense, nor could it be since only a minimum of historical data is available where the life of the actual Helena is concerned. Yet Waugh clearly put his heart and soul into this work and ultimately concluded that it was the best novel he had written.
His central theme is focused on the conflict between a Catholic view of reality and a gnostic view. The Catholic view states that God revealed the truth plainly to humankind, in a historically verifiable manner, for one and all to see. Gnosticism in its various forms prefers that the truth or all high knowledge be accessible to only a privileged few. Against the latter, Waugh pits his heroine.
Helena is an intelligent and entertaining work, and is peppered with the acerbic humor Waugh was famous for. But then there are the peculiarities mentioned above. These include certain anachronistic elements which the author deliberately incorporated into his narrative, along with some none-too-subtle jabs at anti-Christian historians like Edward Gibbon. Deserved or not, such rejoinders seem out of place in a fictional narrative; at least in the way Waugh does it here. Also, he sometimes adopts a certain tone that sounds like the voice of a semi-bored tour guide: “…a cockpit here, a rough sports stadium there, the greater or less propriety of the gaming houses and taverns; the shrines of the regimental deities…” etcetera.
As for his portrayal of the heroine’s son, Constantine, I’m not sure what to think. I know that this emperor was a ruthless man and should not be honored as a saint; but I never quite imagined the hideous, homicidal buffoon that is depicted by Waugh.
However, it is the central figure, Helena herself, who matters most in this novel; and she makes up for its shortcomings. She is portrayed as a decent and kind woman without being sentimental. She is morally and physically sturdy, intelligent but opposed to intellectual elitists; she is devout but not pious, and more sacramental than spiritual. In short, she comes off as a no-nonsense, down-to-earth Christian believer, and as such she may or may not appeal to readers. For me, Waugh’s Helena succeeds impressively, and remains in my thoughts long after the actual reading.