The Italian religious news website Radio Spada has published a review of Waugh’s novel Helena. An Italian translation of the novel was published as Elena: la madre dell’imperatore in 2002, but this review is not related to that publication, aside from a display of the cover art at the beginning of the article. The review is by Luca Fumagalli who frequently writes about Waugh’s works. Here’s a translation of the beginning of the article:
Contrary to what Evelyn Waugh himself claimed, Elena ( Helena ) is by no means his best novel. The book, published for the first time in 1950, is a study of a vocation, and the mysterious action of divine grace, a thematic path already started by the English writer with Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One, and which would continue in the following years with the trilogy Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Waugh traces the story of Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and the one to whom, according to tradition, credit goes to having found the True Cross of Christ, as a path of growth from the paganism of her adolescence in Britain to the Faith of mature age, spent in Rome and then in Jerusalem. [The story is told] in a pre-Raphaelite painting atmosphere, the result of the juxtaposition of a series of iconic scenes, where each person finds himself a pawn in an inscrutable divine project; in other words, Waugh tries to demonstrate the historical truth behind the foundation of the Church, an idea that is grafted onto the context, typical in his work, of the conflict between civilization and wild madness.
In Helena what is missing is above all an adequate psychological characterization of the main characters, and the plot also suffers due to a dancing rhythm and frequent temporal ellipses between one chapter and another, sometimes several years. Furthermore, the intentional anachronisms, conceived by Waugh with the aim of underlining how the story narrated is so significant as to be still relevant, are rarely spot on (in this sense the most illuminating example is the prophecy dedicated to Napoleon in exile to Saint Helena, intriguing in this regard but definitely out of place). There are inspired moments – above all the death of Fausta and the brilliant epilogue – which reveal the talent of an exceptional “prosatore”, but, like the True Cross, too often they are buried under piles of residual prose, slags of flat sentences and monotone.
Some critics spoke of the book as an experiment of “postmodernism” or “metafiction”, and certainly, except for the female protagonist and the Roman setting, Helena has little to do with similar historical novels such as Fabiola by NP Wiseman and Callista by JH Newman. Waugh’s story, in addition to taking place in a later period than that of the martyrs – a period frequented by Catholic novelists in England also for the evident analogies with the 16th century – shows the triumph of Christianity in terms not so exalting, so much so that his bitter irony does not spare even the great emperor Constantine, portrayed as a man full of himself and “with a clouded mind”. More generally, Helena gives the impression of resolving itself in a strange amalgam of the historical and religious convictions of its author, a synthesis with great potential, but whose result, although interesting, cannot leave us fully satisfied.
The review continues with an attempt to link some of the characters to members of the Bright Young People that Waugh wrote about in his earlier novels and a discussion of some of the book’s religious themes. It may not be Waugh’s best novel, but it is probably the one he spent most time writing. He started in March 1945 with the idea of writing a Saint’s Life and changed his mind to make it an historical novel, which he finally completed in March 1950. Although not mentioned, the review is quite timely as the OUP has announced that its edition of Helena will be published later this year as Vol. 11 of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh edited by Sara Haslam. See previous post. The translation is by Google with some edits.