Waugh, Helena and the Gnostics

George Weigel, author and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, has a written an essay aimed at generating interest in Waugh’s late novel Helena. Writing in the Catholic World Report, Weigel describes the novel as “slim and unappreciated” and, after a summary of the plot, explains that:

Helena discovers that post-persecution Christianity in Rome is embroiled in theological controversy, with various forms of Gnosticism threatening to reduce the faith to an arcane “knowledge” (the Greek “gnosis”) accessible only to the elite. So the elderly Helena, a practical British girl and something of a populist despite her status as Dowager Empress, decides to put paid to that nonsense by going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and recovering the instruments of the passion: the physical evidence that Christianity, rather than being an esoteric myth, is founded on real events that happened to real people at a real time in a real place… Helena’s quest, which has its climax during Lent, is rewarded by the discovery of the True Cross. Helena is full of Waugh’s humor – including a hilarious putdown of Edward Gibbon and the anti-Christian motif in his [Decline] and Fall of the Roman Empire – which makes for easy and amusing reading. The author’s intent, however, was entirely serious…

Weigel concludes the essay with his explanation of Waugh’s intent and its application to a current controversy within the Roman Catholic Church relating to its teachings on marriage and divorce. You probably don’t have to be Roman Catholic or a Gnostic to understand and appreciate his conclusions, but it would help.

Waugh’s Catholicism also gets him mentioned in this week’s Spectator. This appears in A N Wilson’s review of the biography by Thomas Dilworth entitled David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet. Jones was also a Roman Catholic as is mentioned in this conclusion to Wilson’s favorable review:

The other ingredient in the story, once Jones had found his spiritual home, is the texture of Catholic life in England between the wars. Dilworth evokes what a small world it was, Jones numbering among his friends Vicky Ingrams, Hugh and Antonia Fraser, Julian Oxford, Martin D’Arcy and Evelyn Waugh. Jebbs, Pollens, Burnses, Woodruffs and Actons abound, many of them slipping the impoverished Jones cigarettes, whisky and cheques. The pen sketches of many of these characters are masterly. I liked the story of Evelyn Waugh telling Jones that his fringe of hair made him ‘look like a bloody artist’. ‘I am a bloody artist,’ Jones replied. That really is the story of this wonderful book.

In another review of Dilworth’s book written by Laura Freeman in Standpoint, Waugh is mentioned among the influential friends in the art world who supported Jones:

Dilworth reminds us of his friendships with the great and the generous. Jones was always hard up, keeping his trousers together with safety pins and wearing his coat in bed. Jim Ede and Kenneth Clark organised subscriptions and pensions. Harman Grisewood, who developed the BBC’s Third Programme, and Tom Burns, editor of the Tablet, indulged and encouraged him. He was fond of Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer, Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot, who published his poems at Faber. Anyone he really liked he called a “chap” — there was no higher term of praise.

UPDATE (11 April 2017): Rachel Cooke reviews Dilworth’s biography of David Jones in the Observer and has this to say about the allegedly reclusive artist-poet’s circle of friends:

… he is surely the most gregarious recluse who ever lived. He meets Yeats and Auden and attends Evelyn Waugh’s wedding; he has Christmas lunch with TS Eliot, and his new wife, Valerie (“Finished!” was Jones’s comment on Eliot’s creative life, on seeing his marital spooniness). What makes all this the more amazing is his itinerant lifestyle. For a long time, he lived at home with his parents. But he was always camping, too, turning up at friends’ flats ready to outstay his welcome.

Waugh reviewed Jones’ book-length poem In Parenthesis in Night and Day a few weeks after his wedding (Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 195) and sent him a letter about a year later congratulating him on behalf of both himself and Laura on receiving the Hawthornden Prize for that book (Letters, p. 117). Waugh does not mention Jones as a wedding guest in his Letters and Diaries but must have admired him sufficiently at the time to have sent him an invitation.

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