Sunday, June 19

Excavating the Soul: Rediscovering Evelyn Waugh’s Greatest Work

Helena. Evelyn Waugh.
Loyola Classics, 240 pp., $12.95
Reviewed by Matthew Alderman

From the April 2005 edition of the Advocata Nostra, an independent orthodox Catholic publication serving the students of Notre Dame, St. Mary’s and Holy Cross.

There was once a time, in illo tempore, when superstar Catholic writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Walker Percy and the inimitable Chesterton, were published by the great publishing houses and read by heathen and Christian alike. While works such as Brideshead Revisited still populate bookstore shelves, many others, such as Waugh’s favorite among his own novels, Helena, have been lost to the ages. Loyola Press does us all a service by excavating these gems of popular Catholic fiction in their new Loyola Classics line. Series editor Amy Welborn has selected five titles for publication this spring, including Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, a 1928 tale of a modern St. Francis; and Rumer Godden’s hefty 1969 In This House of Brede, a novel of modern convent life.

And Helena. I discovered this book once before, as a yellowing, out-of-print paperback tucked amid third-rate thrillers in the School of Architecture’s Rome Program library. While Waugh labored long over this, his only historical novel, it is often misunderstood. While not attempting to be an archaeological reconstruction of St. Helena’s search for the True Cross, its mixture of deliberate anachronism, historical fact and historical fantasy, succeeds in showing both the oddness of the decaying late Roman world and its uncanny similarity to our own strange age.

The book is not without its flaws, especially if one is expecting your standard Waugh romp. But every wrinkle has its purpose. For instance, while his vision of Constantine as an arrogantly spaced-out new-ager spouting luminous gibberish seems to me an unfair characterization of a great, if sometimes conflicted, emperor, it remains a dead-on portrayal of the modern attempt to free man from sin by denying sin’s existence.

Like St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross, Helena presents truths archaeological and spiritual. Unlike the dark humor of his earlier works, Helena is both more ethereal and also far grimmer. To Waugh, Helena was a saint who did not look it, a crotchety old woman rather than an ecstatic virgin fed to lions or a wild Stylite. She was a saint simply because she followed God’s distinct plan for herself to encounter the messy reality of the Cross. The Cross is a historical fact held up here to refute the airy dreams of secular humanism, here appearing under its earlier disguise as fourth-century Gnosticism. These concerns are treated by George Weigel in his new introduction, a delightful bonus.

We are indebted to Loyola for digging down, like Helena, into the strata of Catholic fiction to uncover this forgotten novel. It is my hope that it will inspire Catholic readers and Catholic writers alike. Modern fiction is extravagantly antinomian, while today’s Catholic novel preaches loudly and unsubtly to the choir. The Church deserves the best in fiction as well as in fact, and Loyola has done well to remind us of this as we continue forward into this new and uncertain century.

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