“In Helena, the play of words and the fireworks, the exquisite descriptions of landscapes, and even the finished portraits of the heroine, her husband, and her son, are always subordinate to the author’s broad vision of the mixed anguish and hope with which the world of Constantine’s time was filled.” —New York Herald Tribune
“[Helena] may be read on two levels of appreciation: As bright entertainment, or as deceptively profound commentary. On both levels it’s a superlatively well done book.” —Chicago Tribune
Evelyn Waugh, author of the internationally acclaimed bestseller Brideshead Revisited and one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, considered Helena to be perhaps his finest novel. Based on the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and finder of the true cross, this spiritual adventure brings to life the political intrigues of ancient Rome and the early years of Christianity.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I’ve long wondered about the truth behind theories that Helena, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, was a British princess. As with the legend of King Arthur, we’ll probably never know the truth about her birth, but since I love the Arthurian legend, I like to think it’s true, and even that she is an ancestor to King Arthur himself since King Arthur is often theorized to be Constantine’s descendant.
Consequently, I was excited when I found out that one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century novelists, Evelyn Waugh, had written a book about St. Helena. I was even more excited when I read in the book’s preface that the Wandering Jew—a favorite figure from Gothic literature—makes an appearance.
Helena, published in 1950, actually was considered by Waugh to be his best work. I’m afraid that most critics, myself included, don’t agree. Otherwise, I’d have heard of the book long ago since...
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...
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.
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