Helena by Evelyn Waugh

published 1950  chapter 1

The ladies were putting themselves in order for the concert. Helena’s hair which at her lesson has hung in thick russet plaits was now maturely dressed and bedizened; she wore a robe of embroidered silk which had come to her by dromedary and ship and pack mule and porter from distant China; her narrow slippers shone with stones and gold thread and when she had washed her arms and white forearms – ‘Helen of the white arms, fair among women’, she thought as she dabbled in the steaming limewater – she planted all sixteen various rings that had been the youngest sister’s share of her mother’s jewel-chest, firmly on her strong young fingers.

‘You look perfectly charming, child’ said her aunt, adjusting the fillet on Helena’s brow. ‘We won’t go in quite yet. The gentlemen have just gone to be sick.’

observations: This entry should be read in conjunction with the previous one on this book.

Clothes in Books frequently quotes from the letters of Evelyn Waugh, and it’s just as well we do have backup here: there is a scene in which Helena indulges in a fantasy about horses which is plainly sexual, as Waugh confirms in a letter; and after her wedding-night she goes hunting ‘to solace her man-made hurt… heal her maidenhead’. This would not usually be found in a life of a saint. (And there’s no point reading the book in the hope of a lot more sexy bits.) Apart from anything else, most female saints are virgins, not many are mothers: Helena’s son is Constantine the Great, and she herself is supposed to have found the remains of the True Cross.

What we all know about the True Cross is that the relics of it throughout the world by the time of the Reformation were sufficient to build Noah’s Ark. 



Waugh says there is a saintly priest who has done the calculation: worked out how much wood it would take to make a cross, and then added up all the known relics. And the known splinters are MUCH less than the wood available. That is not, or course, to say that all the relics were real, but it’s interesting all the same.

The fillet is a jewelled band across the forehead, and bedizened means highly-decorated.

Links on the blog: Evelyn Waugh dealt with Chinese robes in Brideshead Revisited too. Other Princesses include Margaret, Diana, and the Little Princess.

The picture is by George Hendrik Breitner, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - I always find it interesting when saints or famous people, etc., are portrayed as just...normal people. I like that 'human touch.' Interesting information about the relics too.


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