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Helena (Loyola Classics) Paperback – March 1, 2005

4.0 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Book Description

Helena is the intelligent, horse-mad daughter of a British chieftan who is suddenly betrothed to the warrior who becomes the Roman emperor Constantius. She spends her life seeking truth in the religions, mythologies, and philosophies of the declining ancient world. This she eventually finds in Christianity—and literally in the Cross of Christ.

From the Back Cover

"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 whick the world of Constatntine'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 acclained 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, theis spiritual adventure brings to life the political intrigues of ancient Rome and the early years of Christianity.


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Product Details

  • Series: Loyola Classics
  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Loyola Classics; Reissue edition (March 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 082942122X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0829421224
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,212,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Evelyn Waugh wrote very funny, sophisticated novels about the British upper and bohemian classes. His short novel Helena is set in the late Roman empire, long before those categories existed, at least as we know them. It is about the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, and her search for the True Cross in fourth century Palestine, after a life of imperial politics that took her from one end of the known world to the other. She was not active in politics, but born and married into it, being the daughter of a British Celtic chief (whom Waugh names Cole)and the wife of Chlorus, a Roman aristocrat and soldier who was the father of the future emperor. The first two-thirds of the book is a beautifully written fictional account of her life at the top, and we discover that after all there was an upper class with bohemian hangers-on not unlike Britain's in the last century. Waugh creates a completely convincing imperial court that is treacherous and sophisticated, and a very convincing saint who discovers her purpose in life in it. The supporting figures in the novel--a tutor; an architect; a humble, over-worked bishop; a pair of coniving witches--are among the best things in the book.
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Format: Paperback
This is a very different sort of historical fiction. Waugh does evoke the time and place of the fourth century Roman Empire, but he never leaves you to really imaginatively enter into that world. He's always at your side, nudging the careful reader in the ribs to share a laugh at the expense of self-important intellectuals or effete no-talent artists trying to pass off their lack of ability as refined aesthetic sensibility. Some laughs, he throws in just for the fun of it and because he can (look for the thinly veiled nursery rhyme allusion on page 32). Some of the references are historical "inside jokes" that are funny if you see them but less informed readers will just breeze past. My personal favorite is when Constantine leaves Rome to pope Sylvester, and one of the priests says, "I rather wish we had it in writing;" a second priest replies "Oh, we will" (a reference to the 8th century forged decree known as the "Donatio Constantini").

There are a handful of passages that are worth the price of the book all by themselves: the account of Fausta's demise, the conversation between Constantine and the architect and artist working on his triumphal arch, and the prayer of Helena to the three Magi at the grotto in Bethlehem on the feast of Epiphany, to name just a few.

This volume is highly recommended, though much different than Waugh's more traditional biography of Edmund Campion, which has its own sort of excellence.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Evelyn Waugh is known for biting caustic satire and misogyny. He thinks nothing of killing small boys or tiny animals while scoring points against the bounders of society. His fiction contains more heartless, designing women then the back catalogs of ELO and Hall & Oates combined.

"Helena" (1950) is one odd novel from such a man. Satiric quips come thick and fast, but there's a rare and deep sense of emotional investment, too. And the hero is the title character, a woman named Helena who finds herself the victim of a designing husband for a change but shakes off her disappointment in search of something true and eternal, a hunger that eventually leads her to Christianity and sainthood.

Catholicism is the other thing Waugh is known for, and his trumping concern as far as "Helena" is concerned, a spiritual novel from the least spiritual of religiously-inclined writers. "The church isn't a cult for a few heroes," Helena is told by Pope Sylvester, advising her on what becomes her quest, to uncover the fragments of the Cross of the Crucifixion and bring them to the European heart of the Empire. "It is the whole of fallen mankind redeemed."

While based on the real life of the mother of the first Roman emperor to reputedly embrace Christ, Waugh takes some liberties. Helena starts out here a British princess, horse-mad and lusty, who catches the eye of the Roman royal Constantius. Waugh's treatment of ancient customs isn't too far afield of how he serves up early 20th century London. When Constantius asks Helena's father for his daughter's hand, and mentions he has a chance of becoming emperor, the father isn't all that impressed.

"Some of the emperors we've had lately, you know, have been nothing to make a song about," Poppa replies.
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Format: Paperback
Normally, an Evelyn Waugh novel is funny from beginning until the dark end, which is typically still funny but often with some in-your-face bit of reality that bites.

_Helena_ is far from a comic (or dark comic) novel, yet it still has all of things that make a Waugh novel so good: the realistic dialogue, solid character development and detailed description that helps give the novel depth.

It's more like _Brideshead Revisited_ because of its more serious, dramatic feel, but if you like Waugh, you'll like _Helena_ (especially if you hang in there for an awesome ending).
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Format: Paperback
Waugh called this book "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write". I would amend that to 'far the best thing he ever tried to write.'

Briefly, the book recreates the life of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and credited with finding the cross of Christ hidden at Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

The book's style oscillates between a fictional historical novel and a traditional Life of a Saint. The first three-quarters documents Helena's life, from her hypothetical youth as a Briton chieftain's daughter, through her marriage to Constantius Chlorus, a high-ranking Roman officer on a secret visit to Britain, her raising of Constantine, their son, to her semi-recluse life in Illyria and Treves, until Constantine's accession to the throne and his seizure of Rome. The mood of this section is one of cynical futility: Helena, despite hobnobbing with the highest people in the empire, really has no reason to live except tend her villa and while away the time.

In the last quarter of the book the real story starts. Constantine defeats and kills his rival Maxentius and takes Rome, and Helena for the first time in her life visits the city - to find a hotbed of intrigue with her son at the epicentre. Despite having become a Christian in the interim, Helena does not appear that much affected by Constantine's behaviour, not even by his killing of his son Crispus and his wife Fausta. She seems to shake a weary head and then think up something new to do - go to Jerusalem and find the cross of Christ.

Then, according to Waugh, she becomes a saint, living in spartan simplicity at a convent in Jerusalem, waiting at table, praying for hours on end, fasting.
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