March 3rd, 2009


I have a sentimental attachment to Evelyn Waugh's Helena. This is partly because I'm temperamentally drawn to the neglected and undervalued (Helena is the only one of Waugh's novels ever to have gone out of print)  and partly because I once bought a water-damaged copy of it at a library sale in Kentucky.  I think of it as the book I rescued- the runt of the litter- the half-drowned kitten.  

Do I still have that copy? I assumed I didn't when I borrowed one from the library last week, but who knows? I've long since lost track of my books. They are stacked and cupboarded all over the house and though it's entirely likely that Helena went in one of the clear-outs I have every so often, there's a remote chance that I hung on to it for old time's sake.

Helena is Waugh's only historical novel- a loving, frequently sly imagining of the Roman Empire in the mid-fourth century. The eponymous heroine is a horsey British princess- daughter of old King Coel of Colchester (and, yes, he does call for his pipe, his bowl and his fiddlers three.)  She marries the political adventurer Constantius Chlorus, gives birth to Constantine- who becomes the first Christian Emperor- steers a straight furrow through the complexities and treacheries of Imperial Rome and finally- as a very formidable and holy old lady mounts an expedition to look for the "true" cross.  Waugh is very good on power- and what it does to people - a little less convincing in his boostering of dutiful, conservative, belts and braces Catholicism.

But it's very beautifully written.