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.
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.
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.
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.
Although I'm Christian, I do believe Waugh's novel has the power to resonate with most. This historical fictions follows Helena in her search for the basis of faith. Waugh implement s the use of religious and historical accounts, at times combining the discrepancies that have not been proven. It is a relatively quick read, and will leave you with great quotes and a new perspective on religion and 4th Century history.
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.
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.
Of course, this is a classic, and the writing is nothing short of superb. What I am wondering about would be the reaction of feminists. Do they find the attempt to describe the world of the Roman empire from an elite woman's perspective as successful? I am pursuing a hunch about thee figure of Helena in modern literature that is not substantiated enough to present here.