Unpleasant Associations and Chunks of Wood in Evelyn Waugh’s Helena

To the extent that one makes lists of one’s favorite authors, Evelyn Waugh has long […]

David Zahl / 3.1.12

To the extent that one makes lists of one’s favorite authors, Evelyn Waugh has long been at the top of mine–or very close to it. Brideshead Revisited was the first novel I read after becoming seriously interested in Christianity that moved me on a sympathetic level, confirming that my cultural and religious curiosities could indeed co-exist, that there might even be some hope of integration. What’s more, Waugh masterfully demonstrated that one did not have to check one’s sense of humor at the door to be a creature of faith. I soon got my hands on the TV adaptation, and Jeremy Irons and (especially!) John Gielgud sealed the deal. I was in love, devouring as much of his work as I could, which wasn’t difficult, as Waugh’s novels are pretty quick reads. The early stuff made me laugh out loud (Decline and Fall in particular), and the later work provided the chills, with Handful of Dust striking the perfect balance. (Not sure if I’ve ever thought of Charles Dickens the same again.) Stephen Fry’s film adaptation of Vile Bodies, which used Waugh’s original Philippians-inspired title Bright Young Things, eventually became one of my favorite films.

So imagine my surprise a few years ago, when I learned that there was one bit of Waugh I had missed, not only his sole work to have gone out of print, but the one that he himself called “by far the best book I have ever written or ever will write.” I’m referring to Helena (1950), his fictionalized account of Emperor Constantine’s saintly mother, who is credited with locating the remains of the True Cross in Jerusalem. Waugh’s Roman Catholicism naturally informs the proceedings, which are rendered with trademark humor and pathos. In fact, it’s a bit jarring to hear words like “bosh” come out of the mouths of pious fourth century aristocrats.

While I can’t say I agree with with Waugh’s hyperbolic assessment of the novel, at least not in comparison with Put Out More Flags, Brideshead or Scoop, it certainly has its moments, one of the best of which has to be the following encounter between Helena and Pope Sylvester:

“Unpleasant associations are the seed of the church,” said Pope Sylvester…

And then Helena said something that seemed to have no relevance. “Where is the cross, anyway?” she asked.

“What cross, my dear?”

“The only one. The real one.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. I don’t think anyone has asked before.”

“It must be somewhere. Wood doesn’t just melt like snow. It’s not three hundred years old. The temples here are full of beams and paneling twice that age. It stands to reason God would take more care of the cross than of them.”

“Nothing ‘stands to reason’ with God. If he had wanted us to have it, no doubt he would have given it to us. But he hasn’t chosen to. He gives us enough.”

“But how do you know he doesn’t want us to have it–the cross, I mean? I bet he’s just waiting for one of us to and find it–just at this moment when it’s most needed. 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. I’m going off to find it,” said Helena.

The empress dowager was an old woman, almost of an age with Pope Sylvester, but he regarded her fondly, as though she were a child, an impetuous young princess who went well to hounds, and he said with the gentlest irony: “You’ll tell me, won’t you?–if you are successful.”

“I’ll tell the world,” said Helena.