“Helena” Memoir in The Tablet

The current issue of The Tablet has what is essentially a memoir by Sara Haslam of her experiences in editing Waugh’s novel Helena. The book was published earlier this month in the UK and will be published in early January in North America.  It is volume 11 in the OUP’s Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh series. Advance orders are being taken by Amazon.com.

Haslam’s memoir, which may also contain some excerpts from the book, begins with a description of Waugh’s initial inspiration for the book in some December 1935 letters to his friend (and fellow convert to Roman Catholicism) Katharine Asquith. She goes on to explain how she was inspired in her writing and research for the book at the University of Texas:

My own turning point came not in Jerusalem, but in Texas, at Easter in 2018. I had been at work […] editing Helena for Oxford University Press’ “The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh”. Courtesy of an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, I was about to embark on a fortnight in the Waugh archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. I would be able to focus, properly, on the novel. (I didn’t yet know about the giant local bat colony, a fascinating natural science distraction for anyone new in town, or how excellent the live music scene would be.) I was looking forward to it hugely.

During the flight from London I highlighted on a hard copy of my draft the 900 remaining “illegibles”, the Waugh project’s term for words or phrases I had been unable to decipher in the digital version of his handwritten manuscript. The majority of my research had been spent in very close study of that document, tracing the variants between it and the published versions of the novel, and creating a narrative about Waugh’s authorial journey between the two.

The work had been laborious – detailed, difficult, frustrating. What had happened to the missing typescript that might explain parts of that journey I could not plot? Where had the pages cut out at the margin of the hard-bound copy been stored? Why did Waugh scribble over his deletions so furiously? And perhaps of particular interest to my readers here, did the early section published in the 22 December 1945 issue of The Tablet have his oversight (“St Helena Meets Constantius: A Legend Re-Told”, which, revised, became chapters 1-3 of the novel)? These were the vital questions acting as my guides but, at home in my study, they offered limited inspiration. Texas changed all that. […]

Re-discovering Helena’s humour was the perfect bridge to renewed engagement with the text, and I found myself listening for it, struck by its effectiveness. When her pilgrimage to Jerusalem begins, Helena has concerns about the commodification of any material remains that she might discover. But, in keeping with a level-headed assessment of her faithful task, she does not mock or judge Constantine when he superstitiously forges relics from her horde into a bridle for his horse. She giggles, rather, and quietly so, bringing her audience directly alongside in her understanding of what she has found and what it means…

After some additional descriptions of insights gained from her research in Texas, Haslam closes with a recollection of a conversation with Waugh’s daughter Harriet, recalling how her father had read this book to her and her sister and mother as a child, something he hadn’t done with his other books.

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