Evelyn Waugh was one of the great authors of the English tradition, with all that entails. A ruthless critic of of imperialism he was also a racist; a mocker of pomposity and class privilege, he became a bloated and much derided supporter of the aristocratic culture.
He is remembered today as a twenties writer, even if his first novel Decline and Fall was published only at the end of the decade which defined him. He should instead be remembered as a thritires writer; watching the world implode under dangerous political ideologies. If Decline and Fall had an almost innocent, Voltairean air, then the trilogy of books produced in the thirties more truly define his work- scorning, bitter and cruel. The world he experienced as a young man was a burst of sunlight after the horrors of war. He wrote when those horrors were just on the horizon again; when, to repeat a well worn phrase, the storm clouds were gathering over Europe. This apocalypticism is best evoked in the preface of Brideshead Revisited. Even after the war was won, England was lost to the evils of a Labour Government and Free Healthcare for all.
Waugh was a Catholic. He converted in 1930. This means the majority of his books were written as a catholic artist. It is notable then, that his more catholic novels are the least satisfactory of his entire oeuvre.
Helena tells the tale of St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It is a sympathetic telling. Waugh turns his acute social attenae onto an imagined Roman Empire. The new building of the Church of the Sepulture mirrors Professor Silenus’ redesign of a tudor manor house in Decline and Fall. In Helena, hierarchy is murderously incompetent. A tragic denouement is the murder of Crispus, Constantine’s son and (in the novel) Helena’s beloved grandson. Although remembered fondly Constantine’s family was incredibly bloody. His son Constans killed all his relatives except one Julian who rebelled against him and rejected the family’s Christianity.
Waugh doesn’t go the full way and critique Christianity. Certain figures are mocked like Eusebius, but in general the tone is respectful. The novel never questions whether Constantine was Christian, let alone what this might mean for the institutional Christianity left behind. Indeed this institution was something he explicitly identified himself with. This reluctance is the most interesting part of the novel. It is something that Waugh would have picked up on instantly in someone else.
There is a lack of psychological depth in the novel. This is both a strength and a weakness. Helena after questioning several religions throughout the book is suddenly revealed in a later chapter as a confirmed Christian. There is a truth in such sudden jumps in belief. Waugh pre-empts the findings of Eileen Barker’s seminal study of conversion to new religious movements in her work of 1984 The Making of a Moonie. Yet as a character arc it is a unsatisfactory and unrewarding.
For Waugh, the consummation of the novel and Helena’s life was the discovery of the True Cross, the wood on which Christ was crucified. She has a vision which reveals the location. The miracle of discovery, evident proof of the truth of the gospel.
The real stars of the novel are the bit part actors, people like Marcias, Helena’s one time tutor and then a major figure in Gnosticism. When writing on religions other than his own, Waugh can wield the scalpel with a surprisingly light and effective touch.
A fine book, it neither compares with the best of Waugh’s fiction or other historical authors such as Alfred Duggan.