Introduction to Evelyn Waugh’s Helena

Published June 1, 2005

Loyola Press

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More than one novelist has had an intricate, even prickly, personality. In Evelyn Waugh, however, nature and grace contrived to fashion an exceptionally complex, even maddening, character; understanding him in full would require the combined skills of an archaeologist, a psychiatrist, and an old-school spiritual director. It would be a mistake, though, to miss the subtleties of Waugh’s art or the depth of his novelist’s vision by focusing exclusively on his personal quirks and eccentricities, amusing or appalling as they may be.

Who was Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh, born in the Hampstead area of London in 1903, the younger son of a literary critic and publisher? What was his art? To begin at the surface, he was a brilliant satirist – one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century. At the same time, his humor was complemented by his literary craftsmanship, which was arguably the most well developed among his contemporaries; however one sorts out the relative merits of Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, and others, anyone who reads Waugh closely immediately senses that he was a master craftsman of English prose, a man incapable of writing a dull sentence.

Then there were those eccentricities. Waugh’s personality encompassed an astonishing range of idiosyncracies. But if he was an eccentric, he was not a crank. Yes, Evelyn Waugh reveled in being politically incorrect. Yes, he could be terribly self-centered and, at times, selfishly cruel. Yes, he lived a considerable part of his adult life in auto-constructed physical and psychological enclaves intended to keep the world at bay – including, sometimes, the world inhabited by his six children. Yes he was, as one of his biographers put it, a “displaced person” by nature.

To file Waugh away under the category “gifted eccentric,” however, would be a bad mistake; no one questions the literary gifts of a Herman Melville or a Henry James because of the oddities of their personalities. Or to take another writer, whom Waugh admired: no serious student of Flannery O’Connor’s distinctive fiction would suggest that we get to the essence of her inner life and its impact on her novels and short stories by pondering her fondness for guinea fowl. By the same token, it doesn’t make much sense to think that we can get to the core of Evelyn Waugh by contemplating his affectation of a Victorian ear-trumpet in his later years – or by remembering that he once asked a briefing officer during World War II whether it was true that “in the Romanian Army no one beneath the rank of Major is permitted to use lipstick.”

A great comic writer? Yes. An eccentric whose personal crotchets gave his fiction and his journalism a distinct tang? To be sure. But beneath and beyond all this, Evelyn Waugh, as he understood himself, was a Christian pilgrim – a Catholic with an intensely sacramental apprehension of reality, a craftsman with a profound belief that writing was his vocation, not simply his career. Waugh himself admitted that he was a very bad Christian, a man to whom neither prayer nor charity came easily; as he was famously reported to have said to a society matron who had complained about his boorish manners, “Madame, were it not for the Faith, I should scarcely be human.” At the same time, few novelists have explored with more profundity than Evelyn Waugh the mysterious workings of grace in the humanizing of a disparate cast of characters.

Waugh’s extensive corpus lends itself to friendly arguments about which of his novels is the greatest. Two generations of critics have deplored both the piety and the lush, magenta pose of Brideshead Revisited; yet an argument can be made that Brideshead is singularly effective in tracing the divine twitch on the thread of human lives, calling us from lesser, easier, more self-centered loves to higher, truer, harder loves. Yet even those who defy critical convention and celebrate Brideshead will often be found stumping for the artistic superiority of A Handful of Dust as a cleaner, more sharply etched, more psychologically nuanced novel. I have long argued that Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender – known to Americans by the inferior title, The End of the Battle) stands at the apex of his artistic achievement; these are, surely, the finest novels to come out of World War II, and their morally driven view of world politics, scorned in the 1960s, was proven remarkably prescient by the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe.

Evelyn Waugh’s personal favorite among his works was none of these, however. It was Helena. When it was first published in 1950, critics paid it little regard, imagining it another exercise in Waugh’s alleged snobbery, this time masquerading as piety. Helena has, at times, fallen out-of-print, a fate that has befallen none of Waugh’s other novels. Yet he loved it; his daughter, Harriet, remembered that Helena was “the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud to the whole family.” Why, tells us a lot about Waugh the artist and Waugh the man.

As for the artistry, Waugh was not modest in his claims for Helena. On the dust jacket of the first edition, he wrote, evidently without a blush, “Technically this is the most ambitious work of a writer who is devoted to the niceties of his trade.” However that may be, there’s something to be said for Waugh’s pride in his craft here: the novel’s spare narration, its crisp dialogue, its beguiling yet deceptive simplicity, the ongoing confrontation between myth and history that gives Helena its narrative line – all of this suggests an intriguing experiment, in the late 1940s, with a form of postmodern fiction.

At the same time, Helena was, and is, Waugh’s most intentional statement about the truth of Christianity, and about vocation – the divine call to a specific work in life – as the heart of Christian discipleship. Helena is full of biting historical and theological commentary (including a hilarious put-down of Edward Gibbon’s anti-Christian reading of Roman history). But, in the main, we are far, far away here from what one Waugh biographer calls the “jubilant malice” with which Waugh pilloried the California way of death in The Loved One. In Helena, Waugh explored, sparely but deeply, the question that shaped the last thirty-six years of his life – how does one become a saint?

In the course of his conversion to Catholicism, which took place in 1930, Evelyn Waugh came to the conviction that sanctity was not for the sanctuary only. Every Christian had to be a saint. And one of the hardest parts of that lifelong process of self-emptying and purification was to discover one’s vocation: that unique, singular something that would, in accord with God’s providential design, provide the means for sanctification. Helena’s sense of vocation, and the Christian scandal of particularity to which her vocation bore witness, was what attracted Waugh to the fourth-century Empress, whom the world remembers as the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Waugh later explained his choice in a letter to the poet John Betjeman, who confessed to being puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena “doesn’t seem like a saint”:

Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying, ‘I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.’ I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh – after God knows what experiences in purgatory.

I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God has chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.

Waugh was not a proselytizer, and Helena is no more an exercise in conventional piety than Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose hero is an alcoholic priest. But Waugh was a committed Christian apologist, and his apologetic skills are amply displayed in Helena. Thus Helena was not only addressed to those Christians who were trying to figure out the meaning of their own discipleship; it was also intended as a full-bore confrontation with the false humanism that, for Waugh, was embodied by well-meaning but profoundly wrong-headed naturalistic-humanistic critics of the modern world like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

More specifically, Waugh wanted to suggest that an ancient pathogen was lurking inside the hollowness of modern humanisms: gnosticism, the ancient heresy that denies the importance or meaningfulness of the world. So, to adopt a neologism from contemporary critics, Helena is, “metafictionally,” an argument on behalf of Waugh’s contention that modern humanistic fallacies are variants on the old, gnostic temptations exemplified by the Emperor Constantine and his world-historical hubris. And at the core of the gnostic temptation was, and is, the denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin – which is, in effect, a denial of some essential facts of life, including the facts of suffering and death. In Helena, the arrogantly ignorant Constantine puts it in precisely these terms to old Pope Sylvester, as the headstrong young conqueror heads off to his new capital on the Bosporus: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with Divine Wisdom and Peace.”

And what was the answer to the gnostic fallacy, which produced in Constantine’s time, as in ours, a kind of plastic, humanistic utopianism? For Helena, and for Waugh, it was what the aged Empress went to find: the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood to which Christ was nailed in agony,” as Waugh biographer Martin Stannard put it. This “remorseless lump of wood” reminds us of two very important things: it reminds us that we have been created, and it reminds us that we have been redeemed. Helena believed, and Waugh agreed, that without that lump of wood, without the historical reality it represented, Christianity was just another Mediterranean mystery religion, a variant on the Mithras cult or some other gnostic confection. With it – with this tangible expression of the incarnation and what theologians call the hypostatic union (the Son of God become man in Jesus of Nazareth) – a window was open to the supernatural, and the “real world” and its sufferings were put into proper perspective. For God had saved the world, not by fetching us out of our humanity (as the gnostics would have it), but by embracing our humanity in order to transform it through the mystery of the cross – the mystery of redemptive suffering, vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Gnosticism, and the plastic utopianism that follows in its wake, is every bit as much a temptation in the twenty-first century as it was in Helena’s day. Fish don’t notice water; we don’t notice gnosticism for what it is – even when it’s celebrated in a bestseller like The DaVinci Code. Audiences still find it amazing, even unbelievable, when I tell them that, in the overwhelming majority of American universities today, very, very few members of the philosophy department will defend the claim that the reality we perceive discloses the truth of things. Somehow, the radical skepticism and relativism of the intellectual guilds hasn’t penetrated down to the level of the people who sign the checks that allow the guild members to live in style. Or perhaps ordinary people – who think that they do, in fact, know some things – feel intimidated by the serpentine arguments of today’s gnostic intellectuals.

Although set more than a millennium and a half ago, Helena is a bracing antidote to this contemporary gnosticism: this “bosh” and “rubbish,” as Waugh’s Helena would put it. From her childhood, Helena is determined to know whether things are real or unreal, true or false — including the claims of Christianity. For her, Christianity is not one idea in a world supermarket of religious ideas. Christianity is either the truth — the Son of God really became man, really died, and really was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world — or it’s more “bosh” and “rubbish.” The true cross of Helena’s search is not a magical talisman; it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.

One Waugh biographer suggests that the novelist’s later years were marked by an agonizing spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion. But it is difficult to read Helena without discerning in its author the capacity for a great compassion indeed – a compassion for the human struggle with the great questions that are raised in every life, in every age. Evelyn Waugh’s comic energy was once sprung from his pronounced power to hurt others, as a novel like Vile Bodies demonstrates. But in the mature Waugh, the Waugh who wrote Helena and thought it his finest achievement, the farce has been transformed into comedy, and the comedy has become, for all the chiaroscuro shadings, a divine comedy indeed.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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