Reviewed by David Maclaine
Evelyn Waugh, the author of Helena, was a very funny satirist who in midlife converted to Catholicism. His novel about Emperor Constantine's mother is a happy meeting point for his youthful comedic skills and his later efforts to express his faith. If a novel like Brideshead Revisited takes its journey from youthful sin to adult repentance a tad too seriously, Helena is a lively little fable about the long road that brought Constantine’s mother to discover what she and centuries of believers called the True Cross. The novel shows off Waugh’s gift for wicked humor and sly characterization from first page to last. He provides an entertaining view of the game of musical thrones that led Helena’s sometimes-wayward son to endorse Christianity, and of her own practical contribution toward rooting the Empire’s new religion in something tangible.
We see the story mostly from the viewpoint of Helena herself. Waugh gives her a British background and imagines her as the forebear of those generations of pragmatic, horse-loving women who would anchor the stately homes of England during a much later empire. She takes the ups and downs of her matrimonial career in stride, mostly enjoying her long interludes in quiet backwaters, where she follows from afar the machinations of the men and women who strive for power. Waugh’s detached comic tone is perfect for a story where most big events take place offstage and arrive in the form of gossip. Those who enjoy the author’s gift for subtle malice will find this a delightful way to follow the travails of an assortment of people who are, on the whole, quite awful. I can think of no other author who could create such splendid dark comedy from the bathhouse comeuppance of a conniving, murderous empress. But Helena also provides a splendidly detailed view of Jerusalem at the time when a building program transformed it from an antique backwater of the Empire into a beacon of the Empire’s new faith. (1950, 264 pages in the Loyola Classics edition)More about Helena at Powell's Books or Amazon.com