Read Helena by Evelyn Waugh George Weigel Amy Welborn Online


“In Helena, the play of words and the fireworks, the exquisite descriptions of landscapes, and even the finished portraits of the heroine, her husband, and her son, are always subordinate to the author’s broad vision of the mixed anguish and hope with which the world of Constantine’s time was filled.”— New York Herald Tribune“[Helena] may be read on two levels of appreciat“In Helena, the play of words and the fireworks, the exquisite descriptions of landscapes, and even the finished portraits of the heroine, her husband, and her son, are always subordinate to the author’s broad vision of the mixed anguish and hope with which the world of Constantine’s time was filled.”— New York Herald Tribune“[Helena] may be read on two levels of appreciation: As bright entertainment, or as deceptively profound commentary. On both levels it’s a superlatively well done book.”— Chicago TribuneEvelyn Waugh, author of the internationally acclaimed bestseller Brideshead Revisited and one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, considered Helena to be perhaps his finest novel. Based on the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and finder of the true cross, this spiritual adventure brings to life the political intrigues of ancient Rome and the early years of Christianity....

Title : Helena
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ISBN : 9780829421224
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 264 Pages
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Helena Reviews

  • Dhanaraj Rajan
    2019-05-18 15:51

    It is a short novel (historical novel) that speaks of the life of St. Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, the Great. She is also popularly known for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and finding the True Cross on which was crucified Jesus Christ.Few Remarks:It is an historical novel. And so the history, rather the Roman politics comes more alive than the character. Helen appears as a simple clog in the heavy machine of history. She does not emerge a live character with flesh and blood. She seems to be distant most of the time from the reader. There are few moments in which she emerges as a live person and those passages are lovely.The religion (Christianity) occupies an interesting spot in the second half of the novel. After all, it was a great political problem for the empire. How the religion was viewed by the Romans and how it was received by the Romans are narrated in an interesting manner. Later when Christianity was the state religion the problems within the religion (dogmatic problems - the threat of Arians and the Council of Nicea) became an important issue to be dealt with. These events form part of the novel. As I said earlier the politics comes very much alive in the book. A disadvantage may be that the reader is expected to be having the necessary knowledge of some of the historical events.There are also spiritual reflections at the end of the book. Last two chapters can be read as spiritual reading. The reflections on Magi, Cross, Holy Land, and Pilgrimage are very revealing.Final Observation:The novel begins very slow and only half way through (that is, after Constantine becomes the emperor) it picks up the speed.If you are a Christian, you will find yourself reading some of the passages in the last chapters again and again (especially Helena's prayer to Magi).From HELENA by E. Waugh:1. What is the reason for bloody politics which causes the father(emperor) to kill his own son or father in law or cousins or nephews?The answer: Everyone longs for Power. Power without Grace leads to high cruelty.2. Is the Church the perfect place to turn to?The answer: "Church isn't a cult for a few heroes. It is the whole of fallen mankind redeemed."The theme of conversion of Constantine may very well stand for the conversion of E. Waugh himself.

  • Robert Corzine
    2019-05-14 09:39

    This is a very different sort of historical fiction. Waugh does evoke the time and place of the fourth Century Roman Empire but he never leaves you to really imaginatively enter into that world. He's always at your side, nudging the careful reader in the ribs to share a laugh at the expense of self-important intellectuals or effete no-talent artists trying to pass off their lack of ability as refined aesthetic sensibility. Some laughs, he throws in just for the fun of it and because he can (look for the thinly veiled nursery rhyme allusion on page 32). Some of the references are historical "inside jokes" that are funny if you see them but less informed readers will breeze past. My personal favorite is when Constantine leaves Rome to pope Sylvester, and one of the priests says, "I rather wish we had it in writing;" a second priest replies "Oh, we will" (a reference to the 8th century forged decree known as the "Donatio Constantini"). There are a handful of passages that are worth the price of the book all by themselves: the account of Fausta's demise, the conversation between Constantine and the architect and artist working on his triumphal arch, and the prayer of Helena to the three Magi at the grotto in Bethlehem on the feast of Epiphany, to name just a few.This volume is highly recommended, though much different than Waugh's more traditional biography of Edmund Campion, which has its own sort of excellence.

  • Amy Brown
    2019-05-08 12:40

    In this short book Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) takes a turn with Constantine's famously pious mother Helena. We know little about the woman behind all of the rumors and conjecture so her life is perfectly suited to a fictive rendering. We don't even know where she was born, only that she was rumored to be low-born and that her early life had something do with being around inns and/or horses, possibly but very possibly not including some sort of sexual servitude. Large swaths of her life don't even register on the grid of history until she comes thundering back into its pages well after her husband Constantius (Constantine's father) has died and well after her prime (she was probably close to 80 years old) to embark on her famous trip to Jerusalem. While this trip was significant in its own right it was the ascription of the discovery of Christ's cross to her that launched her into late antique and medieval celebrity status. Helena discovered no such thing, but it does make quite a story. Waugh's own treatment is simple. He chooses one of the possible pasts for Helena (a very unlikely one of her being royalty in Britain) and then projects her future. Waugh's Helena is wild yet stern, the perpetual outsider with a skill for ill-timed wit, and armed with a keen awareness of just how precarious her position is in the respective reigns of her husband and son. Helena's youth is punctuated by the harsh cold of British winters, her marriage marked with the frigidity of a life lived largely alone and distant from her husband. That chill sweeps through the rest of the book as well, never quite biting too harshly but just enough to embody Helena literarily as one often left in the cold.

  • Justin
    2019-05-20 10:40

    Waugh called this book "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write". I would amend that to 'far the best thing he ever tried to write.'Briefly, the book recreates the life of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and credited with finding the cross of Christ hidden at Jerusalem after the crucifixion.The book's style oscillates between a fictional historical novel and a traditional Life of a Saint. The first three-quarters documents Helena's life, from her hypothetical youth as a Briton chieftain's daughter, through her marriage to Constantius Chlorus, a high-ranking Roman officer on a secret visit to Britain, her raising of Constantine, their son, to her semi-recluse life in Illyria and Treves, until Constantine's accession to the throne and his seizure of Rome. The mood of this section is one of cynical futility: Helena, despite hobnobbing with the highest people in the empire, really has no reason to live except tend her villa and while away the time.In the last quarter of the book the real story starts. Constantine defeats and kills his rival Maxentius and takes Rome, and Helena for the first time in her life visits the city - to find a hotbed of intrigue with her son at the epicentre. Despite having become a Christian in the interim, Helena does not appear that much affected by Constantine's behaviour, not even by his killing of his son Crispus and his wife Fausta. She seems to shake a weary head and then think up something new to do - go to Jerusalem and find the cross of Christ.Then, according to Waugh, she becomes a saint, living in spartan simplicity at a convent in Jerusalem, waiting at table, praying for hours on end, fasting. Waugh does not attempt to delineate the process by which she was tranformed from world-weary indifference to fervent sainthood. Just one day she is a cynic, the next a saint. My impression, on reading this section, is that Waugh does not understand the psychological and spiritual reality of sainthood - what makes an individual a saint within him or herself, as oppose to how it might appear to observers.Waugh never quite shakes off the satirical cynicism his other books are noted for, with its sense of the futility of human endeavour. At times his Catholic component rises to the surface: 'But as the news [of the Edict of Milan granting peace to the Church] spread everywhere in Christendom, from every altar a great wind of prayer gathered and mounted, lifted the whole squat smokey dome of the Ancient World, swept it off and up like the thatch of a stable, and threw open the calm and brilliant prospect of measureless space.’ But it never really permeates the novel, whereas the intrigue, ruthlessness and careless neglect of men of power, does. Waugh is more in his element describing what is wrong with the world rather than what is right with it.Constantine is portrayed as a monster of egotism, suborning the Church and its treasures to his own glory (including making one of the crucifixion nails into a bit for his horse). His faults are as Waugh describes them, but there was an undercurrent of sincerity under Constantine’s political calculation that grew stronger as the years passed. I don’t believe everything this emperor did was done purely for political advancement and self-glorification. He could not give to God what he knew was required of him, but he spared no effort in giving everything else. He was a complex man, made more so by his ambiguous position as pagan Pontifex Maximus and supporter of Christianity. For Waugh he is just another Nero.As a final note, I think Waugh is offsides in his treatment of Helena’s husband, Constantius Chlorus. In his foreward, Waugh states, “I have given Constantius Chlorus a mistress, although he was reputed to be unusually chaste.” This fictional mistress is maintained by Constantius for several years, then murdered by him. Why create that slur?The book is well-written and readable, but in my opinion misses the mark. A pity as there is so much fictional potential in Helena’s story.

  • Mark Summers
    2019-04-28 13:44

    This is a story imaging the life of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine who "legalized" the practice of Christianity with his Edict of Milan. Helena is herself credited with finding the "True Cross" upon which Jesus called the Christ was crucified. The author of this work, Evelyn Waugh, writes in the preface, "The Age of Constantine is strangely obscure. Most of the dates and hard facts ... soften and dissolve on examination. The life of St. Helena begins and ends in surmise and legend." Waugh has Helena born around 255-260; she died 18 August 328. As Waugh wrote, "This is a novel." In excerpts from the transcript of a 1960 interview for a BBC series appended to the Back Bay Books paperback edition, Waugh remarked that HELENA was his "favorite" work - "now never read, awfully good." When pressed, Waugh continued, "Well, it's just much the best, you know. It's the best written, most interesting theme." In the same interview he would say of St. Helena, "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 that made her interesting." The True Cross you say? Consider this, "It is almost certain that Helena directed excavations in which pieces of wood were found, which she and all Christendom immediately accepted as the cross on which Our Lord died. ... We do not know that the wood Helena found is the True Cross. We need make no difficulty about the possibility of its preservation, for the distance in time between Helena and Our Lord is not great (sic) ... but if we do accept its authenticity we must, I think, allow an element of the miraculous in its discovery and identification. We do know that most of the relics of the True Cross now venerated in various places have a clear descent from the relic venerated in the first half of the fourth century. It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this 'true cross' to build a battleship. In the last century (i.e. the 18th) a French savant, Charles Rohault de Fleury, went to the great trouble of measuring them all. He found a total of 4 million cubic millimeters, whereas the cross on which Our Lord suffered would probably comprise some 178 million. As far as volume goes, therefore, there is no strain on the credulity of the faithful" (Evelyn Waugh). The first American edition of HELENA was published here in October 1950. The Modern Library named three of Evelyn Waugh's novels among the 100 best novels of the 20th century. (HELENA was not one of the three.)

  • Juanita
    2019-05-06 17:43

    A completely different book than my love, Brideshead, but that is okay. This novel tells the story of St. Helena and her discovery of the True Cross. Yes, it's a hagiography, but it is also a good story, a commentary on our times, and literary apologetic, as well.There are delightful moments, such as when Helena's father, King Coel, calls for his pipe, his bowl of food, and three fiddlers. Lots of clever writing by Waugh.One of the most interesting things about this book is its treatment of conversion to Catholicism. Knowing that Waugh was a convert, as was St. Helena, it is beautiful when she prays to the Magi, "You are my especial patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents."It perfectly captures my feelings about my long path to Catholicism. I wasn't expecting the emphasis on conversion, but I already have plans to gift this to many people from my RCIA program.Another interesting focus of the book is the contrast between myths and legends, Mount Olympus, and the cult of the Christians, The Cross. At the beginning of the novel, Helena is listening to the Iliad and wondering if it really happened. She is curious about the archeology which would verify the claims of the myths. She is never able to find absolute confirmation that the myths are true, that they really happened. At the end of the book, though, we read the narrator saying:But the wood as endured. In splinters and shavings, gorgeously encased, it has traveled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact.Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the convert. Helena casts them back on the scent.Above all the babble of her ages and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone lies hope." It seems that in finding the True Cross, Helena has differentiated Christianity from the myths.

  • Jane
    2019-05-15 13:29

    Witty and sometime humorous novella of St. Helen, mixed with a good deal of hagiography. The last few chapters were my favorite part: a "Golden Legend"-type pilgrimage to Jerusalem where Helena finds the True Cross and other relics. I also relished the literary or classical allusions such as Helena's father, King Coel of the Trinovantes calling for mead and music then dismissing his bowl, fiddlers three and pipe. Also Helena takes the young Constantine to "Government House" in her husband's posting and upon seeing the ocean, the little boy cries, "The sea; the sea!"Delightful!

  • Deborah
    2019-05-21 14:42

    Very odd book, some nice flashes of Waughvian comedy particularly in the contemporary, colloquial dialogue, but they're set pieces within a plodding exposition that is ultimately not only humourless but sanctimonious. Not quite a novel, not quite a hagiography; its inconsistencies suggest less postmodernism avant la lettre than they betray a native satirist (and quintessential Briton of his class and moment) struggling awkwardly to justify and also to subordinate his own sensibilities and talents to a Greater Purpose. Which is, I suppose, the point of his Helena. I must say that the editorial context is just as astonishing and to be fair may contribute to my perception. The introduction by George Weigl (who??) asserts that the book is a critique of gnosticism, calling it 'every bit as much a temptation in the twenty-first century as it was in Helena's day....Audiences still find it amazing, even unbelievable, when I tell them that, in the overwhelming majority of American universities today, very, very few members of the philosophy department will defend the claim that the reality we perceive discloses the truth of things'. Scandalous! Nor have I ever read a book that concludes with 'Questions for Reflection and Discussion', such as: '1. What is your general impression of the character of Helena? What did you like about her?' and'15. "Her work was finished. She had done what only the saints succeed in doing; what indeed constitutes their patent of sanctity. She had completely conformed to the will of God". How did Helena's unique personality and her questions open her to fulfilling God's will?'

  • Palmyrah
    2019-05-09 09:52

    A Tissue of Delightful LiesThe three-star rating is a compromise. As a rattling good yarn, and a beautifully written one to boot, this book deserves four. Yet for its proselytizing intent and the liberties it takes with history in order to further that intent, it deserves no more than one.Evelyn Waugh was a prose stylist of the first rank. There are images and sentences here that are almost Nabokovian--the comparison of the Empress Fausta to a doll left floating in the sea after a shipwreck, for example. There are many such bon-bons in this novel, which is often very funny as well.Evelyn Waugh was also a Roman Catholic of the resentful British variety, embittered by the rejection of his faith in his homeland. This slim novel tells the fictionalized life-story of the Dowager Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome. Helena was also the supposed discoverer of the so-called True Cross, for which accomplishment, among others, she was made a Catholic saint. Waugh's account of her life here is almost completely made-up, which is fine; but he also reinvents history to create a frame into which his fictional character will fit. Don't trust any historical information given in this book; it's mostly lies. You won't get much of a picture of life in the third-century Roman empire, either.Read this as a work of fiction, a tissue of delightful lies from cover to cover, and you should be all right.

  • Matthew Colvin
    2019-05-26 10:42

    Contains some witty bits, and makes Helena an interesting and likable character. Trashes Constantine unmercifully and probably beyond the reasonable bounds of cynicism. Waugh's Roman Catholic doctrine of relics is presented winsomely, if somewhat heavy handedly, but it did not persuade this Protestant one bit. The best parts of the book are the passages that require a bit of historical knowledge to get the joke, as when Constantine leaves Rome to pope Sylvester, and one of the priests present says, "I rather wish we had it in writing", and another says, "Oh, we will"; or when Lactantius says, nodding to a pet gibbon, "A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people's minds when the refutations were quite forgotten."A short read. I gave Waugh a second chance with this book, which came recommended to me by a dear friend. But I don't think I'll give him a third. (I tried Brideshead earlier, and found it was insufferable.)

  • Schmacko
    2019-04-30 10:34

    I suppose I should write a few words, because I’m typically such a Waugh fan. This book, though, has almost none of his usual wit evident in works like like Scoop, A Handful of Dust, or even dramatic stories like his famous Brideshead Revisited. It, instead, has very thick, overwrought sentences. The story follows Helena – the woman who will become Saint Helena – through her life. It’s mostly fiction, tied together with the thin bits of fact they had in the 1940s. It’s marked by Waugh’s absolute conversion to Catholicism, yet unmarked by more than just a handful of memorable characters. The plot is episodic and largely unemotional until the last quarters. The language never quite captures Roman antiquity so much as it hearkens back to the overworked sentences of the Victorian romantics.I did like how he explains the typical, constant violence of Rome. I am fascinated why conversion to Christianity doesn’t seem to deeply affect people’s character flaws. I wish Helena were more fully realized; skipping over thirty years of her life in a few pages does a lot of damage.

  • Edward Renehan
    2019-05-12 15:50

    Eloquent and devout. Takes the scattered remnants of facts that we have regarding the life of Helena and her discovery of the True Cross, and weaves them together into an elegant narrative. Waugh emphasizes that this is a novel, with much invention added to what little we know. But there is an essential spiritual truth underlying all.

  • Bryan
    2019-04-26 15:34

    This was all over the place--It had moments of hilarious observation (like basically everything Helena said), moments of sadness, and long stretches that were utterly boring. Overall, it just didn't work for me but I'm glad I read it because Evelyn is awesome, duh.

  • Elenabrailovsky
    2019-05-15 15:27

    What a hard language to read. I do not understand half of the words. But I am determined to finish.

  • Alexei
    2019-05-09 12:41

    Well, as almost every other (semi)detailed review already stated that, Evelyn Waugh himself viewed this novel as his finest. And we presume that he knew a thing or two about literature, don’t we? While I tend to respectfully disagree with Waugh on this very matter, certainly severe underappreciation of ‘Helena’ (as almost everyone aside of its author viewed it as a rather minor addition to his oeuvre) is both predictable and unjust. I’ve said ‘predictable’ since this book somewhat misses the mark for most of its potential audience. Those who love their read to be on the easier, more comfortably ‘palatable’ side of things will find it hard to catch all the Easter eggs-like historical and literary reminiscences, to grasp the intricacies of the late Roman Empire in the age directly before and during its radical transformation (and the typically Waughvian tacit parallels to another Empire in the age of radical transformation – this time the one he was born and lived in). For them it will be an uneasy and maybe often tiresome task to follow our heroine on her quest from Colchester to Treves (modern day Trier) to Naissus (modern day Nish in Serbia, which is surprisingly named just that in the novel) to Rome to Aelia Capitolina (yep, present day Jerusalem, if I need to add that), a quest not quite filled with many outwardly colorful moments, a quest of which the most important part is subdued and not exactly formally eventful spiritual journey of its main ‘traveler’. At the same time those aesthetes out there will be underwhelmed by this novel being somewhat too lighthearted in its wits, too frivolous with the sacred historical truth (why did he chose Helena to be King Coel’s daughter? for the sake of making his heroine seem closer to his typical audience? in order to make some cheap jokes like when he describes Helena’s mood when studying Iliad in Latin paraphrase as “at once resentful, abstracted and yet very remotely tinged with awe – of British youth in contact with Classics”?) and too simplifying in some of its major themes (well, why Waugh has to make Constantine’s superficiality in a new found faith and his malice so overly cartoonish?). Also there are some important factual assumptions made up of a thin air as, for example, Drepanum was not only re-named in Helena’s honour after her death but she was known to have some sort of connection with the city, making visits to it during her lifetime. But Waugh still chose Colchester as Helena’s birthplace.Yet, nevertheless, ‘Helena’ is a great, if somewhat flawed and uneven, work of a brilliant author. One thing I find the most problematic with this book (and, truth to be said, this noticeably spoils my excitement) is that Waugh wasn’t entirely successful in finding a proper tone, a proper storytelling manner for such a non-trivial and complex subject. You see, I lean closer to aesthetes. I’m alright with Helena’s remark “you’re a regular little Briton”, addressed to her son (who would became Emperor Constantine closer to the book’s end), ‘chum’ as a wording young Helena choses to refer to her tutor’s kindred spirit…. Well, even ‘rot’ and ‘bosh’ uttered by elderly Roman Empress Dowager in a conversation with historians and theologians don’t really bother me, but there are numerous times when these colloquialisms and modernizations or too blunt allusions to modern day realities seem to be done not out of a great need, dictated by the novel’s own narrative logic, but just for their own sake or even in order to entertain a reader with some unneeded jokes. Well, is this all because Waugh did not want to get panned for being too unapologetic and overly preachy ‘warrior of faith’ and, hence, he chose to entertain the readership with some lowbrow funny moments? Ah, at least this is ‘lowbrow funny’ for a potential Waugh readership. Don’t get me wrong, I like those classy subtle hints, when it’s clear that this was written by a man whom one of the reviewers here called ‘a quintessential [highly cultured] Brit of his era’ yet still in those cases this temporal mind-trickery doesn’t come up as corny. Exemplary choice cut is, when asked by young Helena if anything is left of Troy, her slave tutor Marcias replies “There's a modern town the tourists flock to. The guides will show you anything you ask for - the tomb of Achilles, Paris's carved bed, the wooden leg of the great horse. But of Troy itself there is nothing left but poetry”. Still, there are times when these hints become either excessive or not so subtle for my liking. Yet at the same time I totally adore those little intellectual historical jests – the one about ‘Donatio Constantini’ I got right from my initial reading but I can only thank Goodreads for finally letting me notice that extremely witty ‘(Edward) Gibbon jab’ when Lactantius nods to a pet gibbon and then says “Suppose that in years to come, when the Church's troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal”. Also this serves as a good stimulus to read novels in their original form if you can, since Russian translation substituted ‘pet gibbon’ for ‘pet monkey’. Right now I’m re-reading ‘Helena’ in its original form and, while translation was mostly good, I’m enjoying this book significantly more. And, yes, being no expert on Roman history, I suspect that there is a degree of oversimplification in how Waugh depicts some characters, including major ones, here. For example, Constantine is too bluntly Nero-like despite the fact that he fervently tries to prove his mother that he’s not. I suspect that his portrayal by Waugh, while vivid and witty, lacks in true depth and nuance. Here we witness an illustrious writer seemingly too preoccupied with painting Helena as a ‘perfect saint’ (not in a saccharine ‘hagiography for children’ manner but still) and her son as a par excellence illustration of a ‘fake saint’ concept.But enough with those minor gripes of mine. What’s good in ‘Helena’? Well, almost everything else is good, aside of the negative things previously mentioned. 99% of time the wording and writing style are just majestic – eloquent, elegant and yet unpretentious and gloriously clear, precise. Heh, that’s Waugh on top of his usual verbal game, so no surprises here. Some of the nature portrayals are just unbelievably vivid and profound but there’s more than that. Just like many people already mentioned, Helena’s prayer to Magi is simply outworldly sincere, heartfelt and literarily refined at the same time. Her dialogues with all the Church hierarchs – Lactantius, Eusebius and Sylvester – are also impeccable in both their style and depth of their content. And these dialogues give a perfect illustration to different yet interconnected aspects of Helena’s personality and her faith. And I find ‘Wandering Jew’ trick to be masterfully handled and, as a result, totally appropriate!Helena’s character is the most fleshed out and, maybe, the most complex and even quirky one. We get sold on a complete believability of a huge spiritual journey she undertakes from a playful red-headed girl to “a crank; and more than a crank, a saint”. But, despite all the magnitude and enormity of this journey, there is also a clearly accentuated integrity, continuity to Helena’s inner self. And such is a mastery of Evelyn the Storyteller that we feel this continuity quite palpably. She changes a lot, and an awful lot at that, but the seed of what she would become by the end of a novel was already there in that bright young girl, a girl who was somewhat bored by ‘Iliad’ but at the same time also imbued with a passion to find out if all that stuff really did happened and to see Troy for herself. Yet with a gift of ‘finding out her Troy’ she was finally blessed many decades later, in a city named Aelia Capitolina. While not completely ‘a religious novel’ per se and totally not a preachy one at all (so, no, fear not, this is not more belletricized ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ of modern times), ‘Helena’ dwells a lot on discerning and ruminating on quintessential matters of faith. How one can find a true faith while upholding tradition, what is the essence of faith and how it corresponds with its different forms, what is the true meaning of the Church, what is its mission and how we can see it from the growing of this ever-branching ‘Tree of Church’, what makes this Tree still alive… All these questions were very central to Waugh, a writer, a thinker and a believer, and here in ‘Helena’ we find a very delicate yet profound treatment of those questions. And I dare to say that while Waugh’s Catholicism is noticeable at some points, this is much more than a ‘Catholic novel’, it is a Christian one, with a meaning much more universal than some strictly denomination-proselytizing stuff. Not to mention that one does not have to be a Christian to enjoy this book a lot.Also I have to add that, while very lively (sometimes even too lively for its own good), gentle and even lightweight in a manner it was written, this novel is a very nontrivial, very substantial in its examination of some very profound themes. And these themes are at the heart of the matter here. There is much more than meets an eye in ‘Helena’ and in order to really ‘get’ it one has to dive in deeper than just following the formal plot and enjoying exquisite Waugh’s writing style spiced up with his typical witty bits. It’s a story to get immersed into and get filled with.All in all, ‘Helena’ is a splendid novel, even if somewhat flawed in its implementation, a work of a true literary genius, who was one of the best writers of the XXth century. Or any century, in fact. This short novel is a sort of a hidden gem in Evelyn Waugh’s mightily impressive oeuvre. Read it for your own sake, you, regular and irregular Britons and non-Britons alike.

  • Elaine
    2019-05-23 14:37

    Have you ever wondered what it would be like if ancient Britons and Roman emperors of the third and fourth century used 20th-century British public-school slang? No, neither have I, and neither has anyone else with any sense! But for some reason Waugh chose to tell a story about St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great and alleged discoverer of the True Cross, using what the back of the book calls "crisp dialogue" like this: Another clergyman maintained the wood was aspen and that it was for this reason that the tree now continually shivered with shame. "Rot," said Helena. A story still more elaborate was propounded by a swarthy scholar from the Upper Nile. When Adam was ill, he explained, his son Seth went to Paradise... "Oh, do stop," said Helena. "It's just this kind of story that I've come to disprove." "There's a great deal more," said the darky, reproachfully. "At the end it floats up in the middle of the pool of Bethesda." "Bosh," said Helena. As much as I love novels about headstrong women who marry foreigners, sojourn on the Adriatic, and globetrot in their old age on religious quests, this 200-page novel was a shocking slog.

  • Johanna Markson
    2019-05-01 09:37

    Interesting. Was sticking with the Rome theme and this is a novel about Saint Helena, who was the wife of Emperor Constantius and mother of Emperor Constantine (the first to become a Christian). Helena supposedly found the "True Cross" and brought bits and pieces of it back from Jerusalem to Europe. Not a lot is really known about her but Waugh tries to give you some sense of who she might have been. It works to a degree but he lets you know several times that little is known about her life - should have just gone with telling the story and not interrupting with this aside. The conversations are too modern for the time they take place in but she's an interesting character, you learn that life was pretty miserable for women back then, even for the wife and mother of great leaders.

  • John Ray Catingub
    2019-05-17 17:36

    A short little book whose length does not detract from its quality. Part hagiography, part historical recounting, part fictional embellishment on the life of St. Helena--Constantine's mother who found the True Cross--Waugh's characters are alive and believable shown mainly through dialogue. I expected more of Helena's holy journey but found most of the book concerned with her pagan life and Constantine's rise to fame. The story regrettably zooms through her pilgrimage; I wish Waugh would have spent more time in the Christian, not pagan, realm. A very good 8/10.

  • Rex Libris
    2019-05-26 17:50

    A short (mostly) hagiography of Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. The story is an interesting look at the politics of the Christianization of the empire, as well as the life of the title character. One interesting sub-story is the tale of Constantine's wife Fausta, a would-be Christian, but leading a life that shows she just doesn't get it. My favorite portion of the book is Helena's pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and her hunt for the True Cross.

  • Elizabeth Haworth
    2019-05-23 14:55

    I loved this book and could have read more. It's ambitious, covering the whole of Helena's life, but has unbelievable clarity. The portrait it paints is of a powerful woman who knows her own mind and doesn't bend to the conventions of the age. It shows a woman of history who doesn't scrabble around trying to find her place in it. She had a long life with much pain, but the novel ends with hope. I can only wish the real Helena was the sort of woman Waugh writes about. What an inspiration.

  • Laura Nelson
    2019-05-18 13:44

    Anytime I listen to a book and have to pull over to write something down, and then laugh out loud because something "serious" has been rendered preposterously comic, and notably when I think I just need to go ahead and buy the paper copy now two because there are simply too many parts to re-read and consider, then it is worth five stars to ME.

  • Jeremy
    2019-05-04 15:36

    When Constantine leaves Rome to Pope Sylvester, one of the priests says, "I rather wish we had it in writing." Another priest nearby says, "Oh, we will." Ha.Here's a related article by a friend of mine at Baylor.

  • M.
    2019-05-15 16:48

    This book was reportedly Waugh’s favorite book. As historical/hagiographic novels go, it had a great deal of legend (Helena’s linage for example) rather than archeological fact. Yet, there was something specialabout Waugh’s prose. It was crisp and easy to follow. Full of the political intrigue of imperial Rome. It was an incredibly quick and immersive read as well. I definitely recommend.

  • Maximilian Nightingale
    2019-04-30 15:34

    I loved it! Waugh is pretty clever in how fills in the blanks and makes the whole novel a beautiful reflection on Roman Catholicism, and how it differs from mere mythology or philosophy. A must read for anyone visiting Rome or Jerusalem. Very funny depictions of Constantine and Eusebius too.

  • David Rappoport
    2019-05-27 17:33

    Dull, turgid, portentous, illogical, and did I mention dull? The one book Waugh might not have bothered with. The book is an inauthentic expression of his talent and fails as a result. Not worth reading unless you’re devoutly Catholic or, like me, are determined to read your way through Waugh.

  • Kelleen
    2019-05-01 09:46

    Good. Don't need to read again

  • Michelle
    2019-05-23 12:50

    Beautiful language with a humor that I could sense was ever present but nearly always just out of reach. Completely out of my comfort zone, but enjoyable none-the-less.

  • Kevin
    2019-05-20 10:52

    Waugh writes a short novelization of the lift of St. Helena. It's interesting and funny, filled with cutting humor, and obviously not an attempt at actual history.

  • Jessica
    2019-05-18 14:55

    Really enjoyed this historical much so that I am now interested in reading some nonfiction about both Constantine and Helena.

  • ElSeven
    2019-05-25 13:53

    This is not one of Evelyn Waugh's more popular novels, and I've been curious about it, since I first learned about it. While Waugh regarded it as his best work, it's not often that you're able to find in being stocked by a bookseller. Indeed, it's been in and out of print since it was first published back in 1950. So imagine my delight in finding it in Borders, of all places. I snapped it right up.Having finished it, I don't think it's his best novel. I still think his Sword of Honour trilogy is my favorite. Helena didn't hold together as well as his other books. It felt uneven, and the ending felt rushed. But it was certainly worth reading. Not just for the novelty.Novelty? Sure. It's Evelyn Waugh writing a hagiography. This is the story of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, who found the true cross at Aelia Capitolina. If that's not a novelty, I'm not sure what is. I guess you could also call it historical fiction, though Waugh makes no pretense about placing the piece in time: while the strict historical details are accurate - the correct people are related to each other, everyone dies/is killed in the correct order - the details in between are played fast and lose. And while the people are Roman, in their dress and habits, their attitudes and language is that of Waugh's England. It's the story that matters here. How it's told is irrelevant.The story is different from anything else I've read, from Waugh. It's as engrossing as anything that he wrote. There are shining moments of wit, delightful turns of phrase, and little jokes hidden away to chuckle at, but it lacks the savagery, the 'jubilant malice' that marks so many of his other books, especially his post-war work. While I once thought I had Waugh pegged as a true misanthrope (and who could dispute, after reading The Loved One?), this book forces me to reconsider my opinion.Helena is a paean to Waugh's Catholicism, and his feeling for his faith is evident. It is not a tract, but more an exploration of what drew him to Catholicism, and what holds him there. At moments Waugh bears his soul to the reader, though the person of Helena, and appears, almost, tender. (If such a thing can be imagined!) But still, it's enough to endear the book to me. I'm not a Catholic, but I understand his sentiments.It's a charming, unoffensive little book. I give it three stars out of five.For a book in a similar vein, but better executed, I'd suggest Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. It's -- really good.