I don't think I've ever been as happily surprised by a book as I have been by Waugh's Helena. My expectations for it were not very high. In fact the truth is that I picked it up partly out of a vague sense of duty: he's a writer I like, love when he's at his best, but the subject is the life of a saint, and hagiography is a category which does not usually make for truly interesting reading, at least not from the literary point of view. I suppose I supposed that Waugh had himself approached the subject at least partly with a sense of duty. In short I expected the book to be edifying but just a bit dull.
But it's an absolute delight, and is now up near the top in my estimation of Waugh's novels. It has the wit and sparkle of some of the early comic novels and the spiritual depth of Brideshead Revisited. I'd like to write a full appreciation of it, to attempt to do it real justice, and maybe I will, but for right now I'll follow Chesterton's advice that if a thing is worth doing it's worth doing badly.
Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but I'll state anyway: Helena was the mother of Constantine, and is credited with unearthing the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. Waugh's approach to telling the story is what I would presume or hope is standard procedure for writing a novel about a real person. In his preface he makes
This is a novel.
a paragraph unto itself, to make sure the reader understands that he is not proposing the work as a substitute for history.
Where the authorities are doubtful, I have often chosen the picturesque in preference to the plausible; I have once or twice, where they are silent, freely invented; but there is nothing, I believe contrary to authentic history (save for certain wilful obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device), and there is little that has not some support from tradition or from early documents.
Chief of the "wilful obvious anachronisms" is the language of the characters. Waugh has given them the speech of 20th century English men and women of the upper classes, including, sometimes, the slang. Whenever they open their mouths you feel that they might have stepped out of any other Waugh novel. "I hate Rome. It's a perfectly beastly place"--that sort of thing. In the first scene in which Helena speaks, she's a teenaged girl looking out from an upper window, listening to her tutor read from Homer, and distracted by what she sees below. The tutor is a bit annoyed.
".... Do you think I read this to amuse myself?"
"It is only the fishermen," said Helena, "coming up from the sea for tonight's beano. There's basketfuls of oysters. Sorry; go on about the ox-eyed Klymene."
Possibly the greatest liberty with history (I'm not equipped to judge) taken by Waugh is his making Helena a Briton. Apparently the birthplace of the real Helena is not known for certain, though, just as apparently, there is no positive evidence to suggest she was born in Britain. There's no evidence that she wasn't, and this is enough for Waugh. And it's a good thing, because the English-ness of his Helena is not only part of her charm but in a sense integral to the power of the story. Helena as a girl is a bit of a tomboy; her father, King Coel, says she has a masculine mind and that he doesn't expect her to marry. Helena as an adult is more and more a good solid practical-minded Englishwoman who just wants to know the facts. When her husband joins the cult of Mithras:
She pressed her husband for information. "There's no harm in your knowing the general story," he said. "It's very beautiful," and he told her the tale of Mithras. He told it rather well and she listened intently.
When it was finished, she said, "Where?"
"Yes, where did it happen? You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?"
"That is a very childish question."
"Is it? And when did this happen? How do you know, if no one was there?"
It's a wonderful, funny exchange, and there's more of it. It's one of many instances where Waugh manages to integrate the philosophical and theological concerns of our time into the narrative without being overly explicit.
Helena, later on, in middle age, on hearing that "her boy"--that is, the Emperor Constantine--has turned Christian:
"Not exactly, m'am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ."
"Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one. Was there a cross in the sky? Did my son see it? How did it get there?.... All I want is the simple truth. Why don't you answer me?"
The search for the True Cross appeals to her down-to-earth nature. It's a simple, solid thing, not a theological abstraction.
"Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against it. I'm going off to find it," said Helena.
Now and then you meet a fictional character whom you'd like to know in the flesh. Helena is one.
I'm running out of time this evening so will only mention two other things I loved about the book. First, there's the way major events of the history of the times, political and ecclesiastical, take place off stage, appearing only as what we would now call news items, not necessarily of great concern to those who hear it, but of course very significant to the reader. The Council of Nicea is noticed, and there are little asides about the people and questions involved which are significant to us but aren't to the characters. Waugh has a good deal of fun with this. Eusebius of Caesarea, who took the Arian side in that controversy, is slyly mocked as unreliable. One especially memorable passage, which I should have marked and can't find now, involves a Christian thinking out loud rather bitterly about how the story of the times and of the Church may be distorted by a future historian. Nearby as he speaks is a caged gibbon.
Second, there are some wonderful lyrical passages, as good as any in Brideshead, like this one about the mood among Christians when the persecutions were ended:
The huge boredom which from its dead centre in Diocletian's heart had soddened and demented the world, had passed like the plague. New green life was pricking and unfolding and entwining everywhere among the masonry and the ruts. In that dawn, reflected Lactantius, to be old was very heaven; to have lived in a Hope which defied reason; which existed, rather, only in the reason and in the affections, quite unattached to common experience or calculation; to see that Hope take substantial and homely form near at hand and on all sides, as a fog, lifting, may suddenly reveal to a ship's company that, through no skill of theirs, they have silently drifted into safe anchorage.
Today, by the way, is Waugh's birthday.
I think this piece by Kenneth Woodward at Commonweal is the best, most balanced thing I've read about the sexual crisis (crises?) involving the Catholic clergy. He doesn't minimize the prevalence and significance of homosexuality in the scandals.
One cannot deny that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup, and to dismiss this aspect as homophobia one would have to be either blind or dishonest.
At the same time:
Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs.
And he is willing to discuss calmly but firmly the high likelihood that part of the problem is
...networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.
He goes on to discuss the stories he heard over his forty years of covering religion for Newsweek. And he gives a fair account of Archbishop Viganò's testimony. This is just the sort of level-headed approach that's needed.
Last week, in the context of discussing "the comprehensive racialization of almost everything," I mentioned the role played by white people attacking other white people. Someone objected to that, suggesting (as far as I could tell) that this was some eccentric notion of mine. As if in support of what I said, this piece at USA Today appeared today. It shows that, if nothing else, the phenomenon is at least widely enough noticed that it's discussed in a mainstream middle-of-the-road outlet.
Friday night lights.