Feast of all Saints: The Lives of Holy People

the book:

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

published 1950   chapter 8

[The Emperor Constantine is meeting his mother Helena for the first time in 20 years.]

Save for his height and his upright carriage, the conqueror of the world did not seem particularly military. From the neck down he was all upholstery. A surcoat of imperial purple, laced with floriations of gold wire and studded with amorphous pearls, hung stiff as a carpet to the carpeted floor. It was sleeveless, and at the arms an undergarment billowed out, peacock-hued, ending in lace ruffles and a pair of coarse, much-jewelled hands. Above the surcoat was a wide collar of gold and enamel, a massive thing suited to the bull-neck; its miniatures told indifferently the stories of the gospel and of Mount Olympus. Above the collar rose the face, pale now as his father’s; he was rouged but purely for ornament; there was no attempt to counterfeit the ruddy complexion of the camp. The surface of the face was in some sort of motion. The Emperor was trying to smile.

observations: Two saints for the price of one: St Helena is revered for having found the remains of the True Cross, while her son only became a Christian on his deathbed, but enabled the wide and free spread of the religion, and is considered a saint in the Eastern church.

If you were looking to read a representative sample of lives of the saints – well this is not the right book. Very few facts are known about St Helena’s life, so Evelyn Waugh invented them, but that is not what makes it unusual: scant details were known about most saints, and a vivid imagination is essential to a true hagiographer. 

So: even by the standards of Waugh’s very varied output, this one is an oddity. He tells the story as if Helena were a woman of his own era (“we used to be jolly thick together”), while using plenty of historical detail from the time in which she actually lived. It is quite a modern trick, and one that might be much more easily accepted these days. In fact, he bizarrely claimed that the story was Penelope Betjeman’s life transposed to the 3rd and 4th centuries – the book is dedicated to PB, who was the wife of John Betjeman. Waugh liked the book immensely himself, though nobody else does much: here at CiB we have hoped to love it, but can only manage a weak liking over a number of re-reads over a long period of time. Helena’s sex life, or at least EW’s version of it, will feature in another entry.

Floriation is decoration or ornamentation with flower shapes.

Links up with: Evelyn Waugh has
featured before several times. More mothers and sons in Graham Greene and in Adrian Mole.

The picture is a Bulgarian icon of Constantine and Helena, and comes from
Wikimedia Commons.