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1.0 out of 5 starsI knew I had a good reason for hating 20th Century Writers
Reviewed in the United States on February 10, 2019
Somerset Maugham has written well into the 20th century, and I considered him sort of the cut off point where suddenly every author starts writing experimentally or like Hemingway, writing grown up children's novels -- plain, dry and gone all the poetry of style and meter. But I was reading Maugham's "Cakes and Ale" and the commentary told me that it various characters were suggestive of some of the early to mid twentieth Century writers. Somehow that trail lead to Evelyn Waugh and so I ordered "hellena". Ouch! It reads like 6th Grader crap. Damn 20th Century kicking in hard. It was unreadable. There was no style and the subject matter!? Whothehell cares. Oh, but there are a few 20th Century exceptions: P.J. Wodehouse has a splendidly funny style, if you don't expect anything important, and Raymond Chandler with the genre of American Detective Fiction has its own kind of noire poetry. But Evelyn Waugh... well, we have writers today that can bore us just as well as he can... but, yes, if the books are out of copywrite then Waugh can bore us much more cheaply.
Helena, the Mother of Constantine had great influence on her son's Christianity. Little is really known about her, but Waugh, using history, paints a very plausible picture of what her life might have been.
4.0 out of 5 starsA very odd book, but interesting
Reviewed in the United States on September 7, 2019
A historical novel, about St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, by Evelyn Waugh? How have I never heard of this? Perhaps because it is not the most successful novel; the tone keeps changing, there is a weird interpolation of modern doggerel, the ending was mysterious to me. But, he's a great writer, she's a great subject, it might be worth your time.
2.0 out of 5 starsAn intended didactic that fails to engage
Reviewed in the United States on May 2, 2018
I had Heard much about this book and look forward to reading it. However much it was intended as a didactic, the book fails in its intent because it fails to develop plot and character. The book starts promisingly and then leaves the reader wondering why certain events happened -for example, why was Constantius in Britain, why was Helena getting those notes in her bedroom. It jumps from time period to time period with no intervening explanation as to what happened. The characters simply aren’t developed and we can’t develop sympathy for them. While there are moments of insight in the book, it fails to cohere as a whole.
Reviewed in the United States on February 20, 2014
I am a devoted Waugh reader, but his favorite book did not mesmerize me as the others did. Some of the "facts" noted in the book are not really facts; the style vacillates between his delightful cynism and a sort of devotion, which he might or might not have felt; Helen's character remains embedded in fog. This, of course, is merely a personal bias, but to me the development of a character is as important as the plot, but I missed this psychological enlightment in the book. Helen is alternatively swept into situations totally different from those in which she formerly lived, but the reader does not perceive either her confusion nor the process by which she learned to adapt and to accept her new roles. For example historians usually do not accept her noble birth as true-- as a matter of fact in contemporary writings she was referred to as a "good stable maid", yet in due time she took the role of an empress. What did this mean to her? -- Later she was dethroned because Constantinius did not consider her highborn enough to be his consort. This must have been a blow of incredible magnitude, and could have converted a saint to a sinner. Did she ever dream in secret of homocide, or was she saintly enough by that time to be able to forgive the unforgivable? The reader remains clueless. To summarize my original observation: I cannot accept it as a biography, but as a novel I missed the nuances and changes in Helen's character. I read it and was far from hating it, but it certainly did not leave a deep impression, nor added much to my knowledge. As a matter of fact, the very content of the book is slowly disappearing from my memory.
I've read just about everything Waugh's had published, and just love his work. He is my favorite 20th or 21st century writer (in English; I can't read any other language well enough to evaluate the nuances of the writing). Waugh himself considered this book the best thing he'd ever written.
4.0 out of 5 starsMarvelous and yet a bit disappointing
Reviewed in the United States on August 4, 2013
I love Evelyn Waugh and have read all his books. The writing in Helena is characteristically perfect: never a clunky sentence or word out of place. The characters are sketched in and yet have the feeling of real depth to them.
What made my feelings mixed was the absence of Helena's conversion from the story. There were hints of Christianity in the first part of the book, and after her conversion it is a primary theme. But Waugh doesn't depict the actual process or instant of change and I was hoping he would. In this respect, Brideshead Revisited, even if at points a bit overblown in the prose department, strikes me as ultimately the deeper and better book.
4.0 out of 5 starsRetelling an old story - history and legend alike
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 2, 2011
Waugh tells us in his Preface that his story of the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, is legend - and among the various legends he could draw on was the one prevalent in Britain, popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Helena was the daughter of an English kinglet, a vassal of Rome, whose court was at Colchester. (Other stories have her born in Asia Minor.) It is not a legend, however, that she was married for a time to the Roman general Constantius, and Constantine was their son. Constantius was politically ambitious, and eventually, in 293, became Caesar to Maximian, Diocletian's co-Emperor in the West. To achieve this position, he had divorced Helena in 289 and married Maximian's daughter. Helena and her son were sent to the court of Diocletian. In due course Constantius became Emperor, and on his death, his troops proclaimed Constantine as Emperor in 306. His rival and co-Emperor Maxentius was defeated and killed at a battle in 312, prior to which, so legend has it, Constantine had a dream to say he would conquer under the sign of the Cross. After his victory he issued an edict tolerating Christianity which had been savagely persecuted by Diocletian. In 324 he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, but himself is believed to have been baptized only on his death-bed in 337. Helena, however, had been baptized at some unspecified earlier time. In 325 Constantine bestowed the title of Empress on his mother, and in the following year the old lady, now in her late seventies, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, again so a famous legend has it, miraculously discovered the True Cross, a part of which she brought back with her to Rome.
Waugh builds his story around these part-legendary, part historical events. Most of the book reads easily, as one would expect of this great stylist. The dialogue often has colloquialisms of the 1950s. But the relationship between all the members of a very complicated family are hard to follow, let alone to remember: even though this is a novel, an appendix giving a family tree would have been welcome.
The portrait of Constantine as Emperor is half farcical, half terrifying - a picture of a moody, paranoid and unpredictable dictator who has several of his close relatives murdered. The book was first published in 1950 - did Waugh have the parallels with Stalin in mind?
Waugh gives to the young Helena a somewhat tomboyish but also an educated British girlhood. She married Constantius out of love, but is portrayed as accepting the waning of Constantius' initial affection, his secretiveness about his political activities, and then the divorce in a pretty matter-of-fact way: while Waugh lets himself go in expressive descriptions of the countryside and of the then shabby city of Rome, his emotional tone is cool. His portrayal of Helena as a young woman is much more vivid than that of the older one - until in the last two chapters, dealing with Helena's pilgrimage, the ironical tone of the rest of the novel dies away, and Waugh paints a touching picture of Helena's sincere devotion and of her spirituality. The legends surrounding the finding of the True Cross - including one Waugh has invented himself - are not mocked. Waugh was after all a devout convert to Roman Catholicism.
Evelyn Waugh's only historical novel is a convincing, although necessarily reconstructed picture of court life in the third and fourth century of the Roman Empire. It gives a chronologigal account of the life of Helena, mother of Constantine, as she moves at the whim of powerful men from Colchester through Gaul and Dalmatia to settle in Treves after her husband casts her aside in order to advance his career. She is depicted as even-tempered, practical and generous, but also as a seeker of spiritual truth. After the dreary speculations of Gnosticism, she finds the serene conviction of Lactantius intriguing. In particular she is attracted by the fact that the Christian God was a real person and the Crucifixion an historical event. Waugh asks, "Did she merely conform to the prevailing fashion, or lie open unresisting to Divine Grace and so without design become its brimming vehicle?" He concludes, "We do not know. She was one seed in a vast germination." She is past seventy when she makes her first visit to Rome for Constantine's Jubilee. Suddenly she is close to treachery and insane ambition at the pinnacle of power. Waugh's portrait of Constantine as drunk with success and on the brink of madness is witty but also edifying. How else does one explain the murder of his own son, Crispus? There is the pious suggestion that Helena and Pope Sylvester between them steer Constantine towards Christianity and some kind of self-discipline, although in fact he was only baptised at the end of his life, many years after his mother's death. Helena's visit to Jerusalem to discover the True Cross, the act with which she is forever associated and the reason she was canonised, provides a graceful coda to the book. The novel is learned, humorous, entertaining and at times poetic. That the subjects of Christian faith and personal sanctity are of central importance to Waugh is not in doubt, but he is too fine an artist to allow his writing to marred by anything as awkward as proselytising. Waugh felt this to be his finest novel. I agree.