Helena and Lolita in One Day

–The Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College in Atkinson, Kansas yesterday posted several quotes from Waugh’s novel Helena. This was on the occasion of St Helen’s day on 18 August in the Roman Catholic calendar. Here is the introduction:

British novelist Evelyn Waugh, a high-profile Catholic convert in 1930, called his historical novel Helena, about St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, “far the best book I have ever written or ever will write.” In the same way, the author Mark Twain called his Joan of Arc the favorite of the books he wrote. Most of their readers disagree with both of them. It may be the contact with sanctity, not the books themselves, that impressed them. In fact, Waugh’s daughter Harriett reportedly said Helena was, “the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud,” and it starts to make more sense.
On a British interview television show, Waugh explained what he had in mind with Helena. “It wasn’t about her sanctity I was writing; it was about the conditions of fourth-century Rome, you see. She happened to be the empress,” he said. “It wasn’t the fact of her rank that made her interesting; it was the fact of her finding the True Cross made her interesting.”

The quotations may be viewed at this link. The Complete Works edition of the book, edited by Sara Haslam, was published last year by OUP. When this is being written, Amazon.com has the book on offer at a steep discount (62% off the cover price).

–Another, more worldly anniversary was observed yesterday by Garrison Keillor in his daily weblog, The Writer’s Almanac:

On this date in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita was published in the United States. First released in France in 1955 by a publisher that specialized in erotica, the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his obsession with his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter was met with mixed reviews. Graham Greene named it one of the best books of 1955; E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, and Edmund Wilson disagreed.

There is no record of Waugh having reviewed the book, but he may have mentioned it in one of the year-end best books columns. He certainly mentioned it in his letters. In one to Nancy Mitford he referred to it as “smut”, and in a letter to James Donaldson seeking his help in securing a copy of the Paris edition, Waugh wrote: “It [the Paris edition] may be a mare’s nest but if I have hit on a truth it may be jolly funny.” The “truth” to which he refers is his expectation that the “Yank edition”, which he had read, may have “introduced ‘literary merit’ into the smut.” An editorial footnote comments: “It was a mare’s next.” (Letters, 516, 523)

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