Knowing my great loves of Evelyn Waugh and of St. Helen, my roommate recently bought me Evelyn Waugh’s book Helena. Helena is a novelization of the life of St. Helen based in the theory that St. Helen was born in Britain.
The book entranced me. Waugh’s prose, per usual, was delightful. His descriptions drew me into the story and made me care deeply about what happened. The story begins with Helena as the daughter of a Roman governor (about age 16) living in Britain when she meets Constantius. She marries Constantius and gives birth to Constantine; then, history ensues.
Waugh presents Helena as a strong woman who lives her life seeking truth. She is not concerned with material possessions or earthly success. She wants Truth. This begins with her education as a teenager; her father is portrayed as a man who wanted his daughters to be well educated. Her early divorce from Constantius and her son’s absence from much of her life allow her to learn and explore the small world she inhabits. (And she does, as a woman, inhabit a small sphere.) She is deeply curious, and this desire to learn stays with her into old age. The picture of her exploring Rome and Jerusalem in her seventies is inspiring. She craves knowledge and truth in a way that should motivate others to do the same.
The novel is very Christian, which makes sense considering who Helena and her son are. Much of the last third of the novel focuses on Helena’s growing faith in Christ and her frustration with those who converted to Christianity because it was fashionable or politically beneficial. As I said earlier, Helena is a woman who seeks Truth. Her desire to find the True Cross, the Sign through which her son conquered at the Milvian Bridge, is the crowning jewel of her life. She has spent much of her life pursuing truth. Her crowning achievement is to attempt to share the Truth she finds with as many as possible. She wants the True Cross and the hope that it represents to be evident not only to her own place and time but to all of humanity.
All I want to say is this: read it. Helena is beautiful. Waugh’s understanding of Truth is both encouraging and inspiring. You won’t regret it.
Lastly, I should admit that this book only strengthened my resolve to name my maybe-possibly-someday daughter Evelyn after my beloved Evelyn Waugh.