Adventures in Bookland: Helena by Evelyn Waugh
Helena is probably Evelyn Waugh’s least regarded novel but it is a personal favourite. In part, that’s because of Waugh’s portrayal of Helena herself, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine, which is one of his most vivid and affecting character studies. But most of all it is for the single finest passage in Waugh’s writing – and there are so many – but Helena’s prayer outmasters them all for it is Waugh’s prayer for the salvation of his own soul. It is the prayer for the learned, the great, those who think they bend history to their will and learn only at the end that history is but another name for divine play. I can do no better than to quote the final part of the prayer here, dear reader. If your heart responds and tears start from your eyes, then this book is a gift from Waugh to the deepest parts of your soul; if you read it simply as words then, pass it by, for it will seem dated and strange and odd.
The passage comes as Helena reflects on the journy of the Magi, the Three Kings, to Bethlehem, following the Star to the birth of a new King.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”
“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.”
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”