On September 29, 1930, Evelyn Waugh, the author of Vile Bodies and other ultra-post-modern works, entered the Catholic Church. Three weeks later, the Daily Express published an essay by the convert entitled “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened.” In that essay, Waugh explained his choice to submit to ultra-orthodoxy in an age which desperately needed to remember Europe’s Christian roots.
“Today we can see it on all sides as the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for. Civilization – and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe – has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state… it is no longer possible… to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests.” (Catholic Literary Giants, p. 213)
In 1950, Waugh published his favorite – Helena. “[It was] far the best book I have ever written or ever will write” (The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography, Douglas Patey). In this beautiful novel, Waugh takes what little we know about Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, and builds a historical fiction that is entertaining and wholesome to read. While some of the novel is clearly fiction, much of it is based on sound research and a good understanding of the evolution of Christendom. Helena can be read as historical fiction or merely as a novel. The language and descriptions are gorgeous and expressive.
In a book club discussion, I mentioned that Waugh’s writing reminded me of a fast moving river. The language washes over the reader with strength and speed, while also being deep and wide. More importantly, the elegance of his writing invites the reader to get lost in the world he is painting. Something about this book makes me feel like I am studying a series of Renaissance paintings.
In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s writing felt appropriately cold and calculated. In Helena, the writing is soft, soothing, and almost sunny. Even though a great number of difficult and dark things happen in this story, Waugh writes in a way that reminds us that the light of Christ is always peeking in and warming the scene. Even before He is invited, we know that He will be present. The writing of this story is evocative of biblical prose.
“For thirteen years Helena lived alone. Her hair lost its fierce color and, scorning dyes, she wore it always wound in a silk shawl. She thickened in limb and body, held herself firmer, moved more resolutely, spoke with authority and decision, took careful count of her possessions, gave orders and saw them obeyed. She had moved, on Constantius’s elevation, from Government House to his villa, purchased and enclosed a large estate and made it thrive. She knew every man and beast on the place and the yield of each plantation; her wine commanded a high price in the market at Salona… Here among oleander and myrtle, lizard and cicada, Helena gently laid down the load of her womanhood.” (Helena, Chapter 5)
Mike Aquilina is a scholar of the early church. In his new book The World of Ben Hur, he explains why Lew Wallace focused on leprosy in Ben Hur. “People with leprosy had been sentenced to a horrible fate: why would a just God do something like that? It must have been something the lepers did – some sin they committed… leprosy was not just a disease: it was a sign of moral evil.” (p 123) Aquilina explains that no group – political or religious would help a leper, and that all people thought they were more than morally justified in scorning the “unclean.” And yet, when Christ enters into the world, He not only touches lepers, but He heals them. In His love for the lepers, the cripples, the blind, and all who were marginalized, He is very powerfully turning the old religious and secular standards on their heads. Christ was a radical revolutionary. Aquilina asserts that Wallace was trying to help us regain our sense of awe when reflecting on the fundamental transformation that Christ effected on civilization.
In Helena, we get the sense that Waugh is attempting to do the same kind of thing. By revealing the barbarism and cruelty of the Roman world (and the worlds that Rome conquered), we get a glimpse of what true good Christianity would do if unleashed. Following Helena’s story helps us see the old pagan world clash with the new Christian world.
Additionally, in Helena, Constantine’s Christianity is riddled with heresy. Constantine mixes paganism and Christianity together, promotes heretics as bishops, and spends much of his life confusing truth with trends. By contrasting mother and son, Waugh shows us how, even in the chaos, Christ remained present and the Holy Spirit led Helena in ways that would safeguard true Christian teaching.
“It wasn’t about her sanctity I was writing; it was about the conditions of fourth-century Rome, you see. She happened to be the empress. It wasn’t the fact of her rank that made her interesting; it was the fact of her finding the True Cross made her interesting.” (Evelyn Waugh on BBC’s “Face to Face” with John Freeman)
In a time of modern unrest, Waugh helps us see how similar our times are to those of Helena’s. I read this book during the 2016 Presidential election. While many around me were despairing of our times, I was encouraged. I got a glimpse of how much better the world is today because Christ baptized western civilization through Constantine and his heirs. While it is true that we live in precarious times and we are in danger of returning to godlessness, I found this little book to be a source of encouragement. If the Holy Spirit remained steadfast in the life of Helena, wouldn’t He do the same for me?
By the way, this particular edition of Helena is lovely and comes with a book club study guide in the back.