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Helena by Evelyn Waugh


by Evelyn Waugh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 5 of 5
Although Waugh’s trademark humour makes this a distinctive work, Helena is not anything like A Handful of Dust or Brideshead Revisited or any of the other droll masterpieces of social commentary that you’ve heard of. It is a novella of just over 200 pages, and it’s historical fiction – a fictionalised life of Helena, Empress of the Roman Empire and the mother of Constantine the Great who reigned from 306–337. The Catholics (and Waugh was a Catholic) made her a saint because she purportedly discovered the True Cross, the one on which Jesus was crucified.

As Waugh acknowledges in his brief and witty introduction, not much is known about Helena even though she was such a profound influence on her offspring that he was the first emperor to desist from persecuting the Christians, he issued the Edict of Milan which allowed them to practise their faith without being fed to the lions, and he prudently got himself baptised on his deathbed, thereby cleansing his soul of a lifetime of sins just in time for entry to the Pearly Gates. The Brits have acknowledged his pivotal role in establishing Christianity and Western Civilisation &c with an imposing statue at York Minster, because it was in York that his soldiers rebelled against the expectation that another Caesar would become Emperor and proclaimed him their leader instead.

So what? you may be thinking. What makes this a worthwhile book to read? Well, for a start, it’s always a good thing to have the role of women acknowledged in history, even belatedly. And secondly, loosely based on the vaguest of historical fact, it allows Waugh full reign to create a most interesting story, enabling a critique of the excesses of the age which counters versions of Imperial Rome that focus more on murder and mayhem than the problem of political corruption and governance.

And it’s often droll, with surprisingly sensitive portraits of women in an era when men have so successfully hogged the limelight. Helena is a plain, horsey girl enjoying reading Homer’s Iliad with her tutor Marcias, when she attracts the attention of Constantius when he is deployed as a junior officer in Britain. The marriage begins well but after the birth of her only child Crispus Constantius’s ambitions take over and she is neglected for long periods of time. Helena however does not mope. She makes a life for herself, farming in Dalmatia and sustaining her father’s contempt for Roman politics.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/08/20/helena-by-evelyn-waugh-bookreview/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Aug 19, 2018 |
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! ( )
  janerawoof | May 30, 2016 |
"The enormous conflicting forces of the age, and the corruption, treachery and madness of Imperial Rome", 1 July 2015

This review is from: Helena (Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
Short novel, in which the author takes what is known about 'Saint' Helena, and weaves the rest from imagination and legend. The novel opens when she is a girl, living in Colchester - the daughter of King Coel. A spirited, horse-mad young woman, she soon catches the eye of visiting emperor-to-be Constantius.
Waugh writes imaginatively of a time we know little about; palace life, the violent world of the ruling classes, and various religions, as people seek enlightenment (although the dialogue often makes them sound more like Bright Young Things than characters from antiquity!) Helena discovers Christianity and makes it her mission to go to Jerusalem to find the true Cross, but this is in no sense a preachy book - the aged relic-hunter Helena is a breezy, determined character.
Interesting (put me somewhat in mind of Robert Graves' 'I Claudius' trilogy) but with comic moments too. ( )
  starbox | Jun 30, 2015 |
3791. Helena A Novel, by Evelyn Waugh (read 28 Aug 2003) I admit the main reason I read this slight novel was that I think it is about the last thing by Waugh I had not read. It is a legend-like telling of St. Helena finding the true cross, and while the account of the search was of interest I did not think the book as a whole of much significance. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Nov 11, 2007 |
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Evelyn Waughprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gan, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prebble, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named which struggled and fluttered below the rain-swept walls, there sat at an upper window a princess and a slave reading a story which even then was old: or, rather, to be entirely prosaic, on the wet afternoon of the Nones of May in the year (as it was computed later) of Our Lord 273, in the city of Colchester, Helena, red-haired, youngest daughter of Coel, Paramount Chief of the Trinovantes, gazed into the rain while her tutor read the Iliad of Homer in a Latin paraphrase.
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Book description
Haiku summary
RC ancient Brits?
Constantine's mother gets cross
in the Holy Land.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 082942122X, Paperback)

“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 Tribune

Evelyn 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Helena is the intelligent, horse-mad daughter of a British chieftain who is thrown into marriage with the man who will one day become the Roman emperor Constantius. Leaving home for lands unknown, she spends her adulthood seeking truth in the religions, mythologies, and philosophies of the declining ancient world, and becomes initiated into Christianity just as it is recognized as the religion of the Roman Empire. Helena -a novel that Evelyn Waugh considered to be his favorite, and most ambitious, work-deftly traverses the forces of corruption, treachery, enlightenment, and political intrigue of Imperial Rome as it brings to life an inspiring heroine.… (more)

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