Helena, whom Waugh first portrays as the horseback-riding, tomboy daughter of the British King Coel (that “merry old soul”), marries a rising young Roman legionary, Constantius, and with him has a son, Constantine. For political reasons, Constantius trades in Helena for a trophy wife, and while he climbs the greasy pole of Roman military politics, she retires to the rural quiet of the empire’s periphery and eventually becomes a Christian. Reunited with her son after he establishes himself as Number One in Rome and begins to lay plans for a new capital, Constantinople, Helena discovers that post-persecution Christianity in Rome is embroiled in theological controversy, with various forms of Gnosticism threatening to reduce the faith to an arcane “knowledge” (the Greek “gnosis”) accessible only to the elite.Share
So the elderly Helena, a practical British girl and something of a populist despite her status as Dowager Empress, decides to put paid to that nonsense by going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and recovering the instruments of the passion: the physical evidence that Christianity, rather than being an esoteric myth, is founded on real events that happened to real people at a real time in a real place—events that so changed those people and those they taught that the Christian movement converted a considerable part of the Mediterranean world before Constantine (always on the lookout for the main chance) joined the winning side. Helena’s quest, which has its climax during Lent, is rewarded by the discovery of the True Cross.
Helena is full of Waugh’s humor—including a hilarious putdown of Edward Gibbon and the anti-Christian motif in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—which makes for easy and amusing reading. The author’s intent, however, was entirely serious. He knew that Gnosticism was a protean heresy that re-occurred across the centuries. And as a convert (like his heroine), Evelyn Waugh chose the best tools at his disposal, his well-honed abilities as a wordsmith, to take a stand against the modernist tendency to reduce revelation to myth—and to make ourselves the judges of revelation, rather than being judged by it. (Read more.)