Sunday, November 04, 2007

Waugh's Helena Reprinted

Helena by Evelyn Waugh
1950, Loyola Press (Part of Loyola Classics Series), 230 pages, softcover, Catholic

I usually make it a point not to read an introduction to a book; I never want to be prejudiced by someone else’s take on a story. But since this would be the fourth time I would read Helena by Evelyn Waugh, I decided to read the introduction by George Weigel in Loyola Press’ reprint of this classic. And I am so glad I did.

I had always marveled that Waugh said he considered this to be the favorite of his novels when it was never as critically acclaimed as some of his others, and was, until this reprint, pretty much on the edge of obscurity. Weigel explores Waugh’s rationale, revealing some of what Waugh was thinking when he created the character of Helena.

What the reader must know is that this is not a work of accurate historical fiction, but a statement of Waugh’s idea of personal sanctity. Addressing the objection that Helena isn’t portrayed as a “saint,” Weigel reports that Waugh said:

I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.

I think appreciating this thought is the key to appreciating the whole novel, and what makes it a great Catholic story. It is historical fiction that is not meant to show the historical time period (though it does do that admirably), so much as to show one woman’s pilgrimage toward sanctity.

Waugh makes Helena the daughter King Coel (of “Ole King Cole” fame) and puts Constantius in Britain before he was historically there. She leaves her beloved home to marry Constantius and follow him into the political intrigues of the struggling empire. She is finally put aside so that Constantius may make a political marriage, and in those years of solitude she doesn’t simper and feel sorry for herself; she becomes a strong, successful woman who ultimately finds the Christian faith—a truth among the strange philosophies of the time. Once Constantine is Emperor and she is restored to the pages of history, she sets out to find the True Cross. No one knows how she finally found it, but Waugh has her meet in a dream the “Wandering Jew,” one who is doomed to walk the earth because he didn’t help Jesus on the road to Calvary.

One interesting thing is that Waugh does not portray Constantine in a good light at all. Although, Constantine did convert on his deathbed, Waugh has his character plan it that way; I suppose to make some sense of his not converting sooner. He seems a kind of contrasting archetype to the sincere seeking soul of Helena. Constantine says:

You start again, quite new, quite innocent, like a newborn child. But next minute you can fall into sin again and be dammed to all eternity. That’s good doctrine, isn’t it? Well, then what does the wise man do—the man in a position like mine where it’s impossible not to commit a few sins every now and then? He waits. He puts it off until the very last moment. He lets the sins pile up blacker and heavier. It doesn’t matter. They’ll be washed away in baptism, the whole lot of them and all he has to do is to stay innocent, just for a very short time, just to hold the devil at bay for a week or two, perhaps a few hours only.

Waugh’s writing is impeccably timed. The ache of Helena’s loneliness, even when she is with Constantius, is palpable. There is one place where Helena is trying to stop from laughing at something, and I found myself laughing out loud for her. Although this book is recommended on many high school reading lists, there is one scene in the first chapter that a parent might preread to determine its appropriateness for his/her children. At a banquet, Helena is daydreaming about being a horse, and it comes to a very sensual conclusion, in my opinion. It is important to the story, though, because as she comes out of her reverie, Constantius is staring at her and she knows that she belongs with him.

In addition to Weigel’s introduction, another great feature of this Loyola Press edition is a set of discussion questions provided at the back of the book. They are very thought provoking—not simple comprehension questions, but those that will provide opportunity for serious discussion.

Available from any bookstore.

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