Evelyn Waugh, Helena
and the True Cross

by Jan Willem Drijvers

University of Groningen


Very few people read Evelyn Waugh's Helena these days. Yet, along with Ein Kampf um Rom of Felix Dahn, Count Belisarius of Robert Graves and Julian of Gore Vidal it is one of the most famous historical novels set in Late Antiquity. Helena, published in 1950, is Waugh's only historical novel and although Waugh considered it his best work, it is commonly not included in the canon of his major writings. Waugh is especially known for his satirical novels like Scoop (1938) and The Loved One (1948) his war novels - The Sword of Honour Trilogy (1952-1961) -, and his journalistic work like Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). Best known is perhaps Brideshead Revisited which was published in 1945; many people know this novel not because they have read it but because they have seen the television series.

Brideshead Revisited is Waugh's first novel in which Roman Catholicism is prominent. Waugh was a convert and his choice for the Roman Catholic church was well-considered. Religion played an important role in Waugh's personal life and it is therefore not surprising that from Brideshead onwards Catholicism figured largely in his writings. The book in which Waugh's religious stance comes to the fore at its best is Helena.

Helena is situated in last decades of the 3rd century and in the first of the 4th century. The main character is Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great (306-337), who was the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. The novel tells the romanticised story of Helena's life. Waugh presents her as the daughter of the British king Coel. At the court of her father she meets Constantius Chlorus ('He is very pale and serious', Helena, 8[1]) who is in Britain on a secret mission. The two get married and leave Britain to settle eventually in Nish where Constantine is born. At first Constantius' career does not make much headway; he was a protégé of the emperor Aurelian, who, however, suddenly died. Under his successor he becomes governor of Dalmatia until at last his career makes an upward move when Diocletian appoints him a Caesar in the newly formed tetrarchy. As a consequence of this Helena is left alone; Constantius marries again ('there's one part of the plan I haven't told you. I've married again', Helena, 100) and Constantine is sent to Nicomedia for his political education. For thirteen years Helena lives on her villa in Dalmatia until her son Constantine becomes emperor. She moves to Igal near Trier where she meets Lactantius, tutor of Constantine's son Crispus. Helena, who is seeking for true faith, begins to show some interest in Christianity. After Constantine's battle at the Pons Milvius (312) and the Edict of Milan (313), she converts ('None knows when or where. No record was made', Helena, 140). The scene then shifts to Rome in 326 for the celebration of Constantine's Vicennalia. There is no place for Helena in the imperial palace on the Palatine and in great haste the Palatium Sessorianum is made ready for her. In Rome Helena meets Constantine again since after a long time and learns about the intrigues at his court, especially those of his wife Fausta. Of these schemes Crispus, of whom Helena is very fond, and eventually Fausta herself become victims. In Rome Helena also meets Pope Sylvester whom she asks about the Cross and tells him 'I'm going off to find it' (Helena, 209). Helena travels to Palestine to find out about the Cross. But she is also busy with other things such as the founding of a basilica at the cave of the Nativity ('Just the place for a basilica', Helena, 228) and the sending of the Holy Stairs to Rome. But her main quest is for the True Cross. She interrogates historians and antiquaries, clergymen and Jewish scholars but without success. Many months go by until in the night after Good Friday the Wandering Jew appears in her dream. He shows her the place where the Cross is hidden and digging operations on Golgotha start immediately after Easter. The True Cross and the nails are found, part of which remain in Jerusalem and part are given by Helena to Constantine. Shortly afterwards Helena dies and is buried in Rome.

Around the main story Waugh digresses on religious movements like Mithraism and gnosticism, on political events of the time and on intrigues at the imperial court. The climax of the novel, Helena's discovery of Christ's cross, covers only some 14% of the book. The story is composed from the point of view of Helena - which is Waugh's view - and throughout breathes the admiration Waugh had for this saint of the Church.

In this paper several aspects of Waugh's Helena will be treated: the genesis of the book, its reception, and something will be said about Waugh's faith in connection with the novel. The question of the historicity of the book - i.e. the use of historical sources by Waugh - will also be discussed briefly. But before considering these matters it may useful to explain what is actually known about Helena and the discovery of the Cross.

The 'historical' Helena and the finding of the Cross

Waugh once said that 'Helena was at a time, literally, the most important woman in the world, yet we know next to nothing about her.'[2] However, more about Helena's life can be reconstructed than Waugh may have imagined. Flavia Iulia Helena was most probably born in 248/9 A.D. in the city of Drepanum - later renamed Helenopolis - in Bithynia (modern north-eastern Turkey). She died at the age of eighty in 328/9. Helena was of low social origin. Ambrose of Milan calls her a stabularia, a maid in a tavern or inn. The church historian Philostorgius calls her 'a common woman not different from strumpets'. Around the year 270 she met Constantius Chlorus and several years later, in 272/3, she gave birth to Constantine. When in 289 Constantius became Caesar in the newly formed tetrarchy, he separated from Helena and for political reasons married Theodora, the daughter of the Augustus Maximian. From then Helena's life recedes into obscurity for us.

The gap in our knowledge about Helena's life lasts at least until 306, when in York the troops of Constantius proclaimed Constantine the successor of his father. It is probable that from this time on Helena joined Constantine's court. Constantine's main residences in the West were Trier and Rome. Ceiling frescoes in the imperial palace in Trier, on which Helena possibly is depicted, as well as a lively medieval Helena tradition in Trier and its surroundings, may be an indication that Helena once lived in this northernmost imperial residence. When in 312 Constantine had defeated Maxentius in the famous battle at the Pons Milvius, Helena probably came to live in Rome. The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Part of this palace was later transformed into the church of ´S. Croce in Gerusalemme'. In the 310s and 320s Helena must have been a prominent person at the imperial court and within the Constantinian dynasty. She held the honorary title of Nobilissima Femina and in 324 Helena received the title of Augusta.

Although it has been suggested that from her childhood on Helena had felt great sympathy for Christianity, it is more likely that she only converted after 312 when her son Constantine began to protect and favour the Christian church. That she once was Jewish, as suggested by the Actus Sylvestri - a suggestion taken seriously by some - is most unlikely. There are indications - e.g. her sympathy for the martyr Lucian, Arius' teacher - that Helena was favourable towards Arianism.

The most memorable event of Helena's life was her journey to Palestine and the other eastern provinces in the years 327-328. Because of Eusebius' description of this journey (Vita Constantini 3.42-47), it is generally looked upon as a pilgrimage. Eusebius only has eyes for the religious aspects of her journey. He depicts Helena as driven by religious enthusiasm: she wants to pray at the places where Christ's feet had touched the ground, she cares for the poor and needy, she is generous, and she builds churches. However, it may also be possible that her journey to the East was a political act of conciliation. People living in the East may have been dissatisfied with Constantine's radical (religious) reforms, which included e.g. the replacement of many officials by Christian dignitaries and the rigorous suppression of pagan cults. Furthermore, Constantine's popularity may have suffered severe damage from murdering his wife Fausta and his son Crispus in 326. Shortly after her journey to the East Helena died. She was buried in Rome in the mausoleum near the Ss. Marcellino e Pietro in the Via Labicana. The porphyry sarcophagus which contained her remains is now in the Vatican Museum.

Helena acquired her greatest fame by an act for which she was not responsible, that is the finding of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in the Holy Land led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. Remains of the Cross were already venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the end of the 340s as is clear from sermons of Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem. The legend of Helena's discovery of the Cross originated in Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole empire. Three versions of the legend came into existence in Late Antiquity: the Helena legend, the Protonike legend and the Judas Kyriakos legend. Of these three the Kyriakos legend became the best known and widespread; it originated in Greek, but also became known in Latin and Syriac and later on in many vernacular languages. This legend relates how Helena discovered the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas, who later converted and received the name Kyriakos. The popularity of this legend in Late Antiquity, the Byzantine and western Middle Ages may be partly explained by its anti-Judaism.

The genesis of Helena

Waugh's writing of Helena was prompted by his desultory reading in history and archaeology (Helena, IX) and was the fulfilment of a long-held intention. The idea had come to him when he visited Jerusalem in 1935 after returning from Abyssinia to report on the occasion of the coronation of Haile Selassie. In a letter of 28 December 1935 he writes: 'I feel obliged to write a history of England and the Holy Places. You see St Helena, Baldwin, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, general Gordon etc. all English.' It would take another ten years before Waugh actually started writing the book. Even though Helena is a short novel, it took him five years to finish. Waugh worked at it intermittently and apparently not always with great enthusiasm. On 1 May 1945 he writes in his diary: 'I will now get to work on St Helena.' Five days later, on 6 May he notes: 'I have done enough reading to start tomorrow on Helena.' The working title of the book was The Quest of the Empress Dowager.

Waugh seems at first to have had the idea of writing a serious work of history on Helena instead of a novel. His friend Christopher Sykes remarks that Helena was initially envisioned as 'a history of the age of Constantine centred on her'.[3] He must have abandoned that approach fairly soon since on 14 May 1945 he writes in a letter 'Now I am writing an unhistorical life of St Helena which absolutely no one will be able to bear.'

Helena was modelled on Penelope Betjeman, wife of the poet John Betjeman, and a great horse lover. On 27 May 1945 Waugh writes to John Betjeman: 'As I told you I am writing her [Penelope's] life under the disguise of St Helena's...She is 16, sexy, full of horse fantasies. I want to get this right. Will you tell her to write to me fully about adolescent sex reveries connected with horse riding.' On 15 January 1946 he writes to Penelope Betjeman: 'Many months ago I wrote to ask your help with the hipperastic passages of my life of Helena...The Empress loses her interest in such things when she is married. I describe her as hunting in the morning after her wedding night feeling the saddle as comforting her wounded maidenhead. Is that O.K.?' In the beginning of February 1946 he writes to a friend: 'I am writing a very beautiful book about Penelope Betjeman's early sex life called ´The Life of the Empress Helena.''

Waugh worked on the novel until the beginning of 1946 as appears from remarks in his diary and in letters. A first draft of it was published in the Catholic weekly The Tablet (22 December 1945, pp. 299-302) entitled 'St. Helena Meets Constantius: A Legend Retold'. At the end of January the first part of the book was finished. Waugh was clearly very pleased with it and considered the book as something special. He realised, however, that it would not attract a great readership, as appears from a letter to his literary agent A.D. Peters: '´The quest of the Empress Dowager' is one third written & very good. No money in it for either of us. My wish is to publish it in an edition de grande luxe & perhaps reprint for the general public in five or six years time.' (16 January 1946)

A historical novel like Helena demanded thorough investigation into the life of the protagonist and the historical circumstances of the time, especially since early Christianity and the reign of Constantine were unfamiliar territory for Evelyn Waugh. Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Cambridge Ancient History and the Cambridge Medieval History were among his sources,[4] as well as the Itinerarium Burdigalense, the itinerary of the Bordeaux pilgrim (see below). He also wrote letters to obtain information. He requests his Jewish acquaintance Robert Henriques (Letters of 24 January and 2 February 1946) for 'information on the Jews in Palestine after the destruction of the temple [70 A.D.] and anything on the antiquities and authenticity of the sites'. He also wants to know about the effect of the law of Hadrian of 135 A.D. which forbade the Jews all access to Jerusalem: 'Did they begin to return by the third century? There seem to have been plenty about in the fourth century when the Emperor Julian began rebuilding the temple.' His letters to Henriques also show Waugh's particular interest in the story of the Wandering Jew, a figure of importance in Helena: 'Also, can you tell me anything about the Wandering Jew? Is he purely a mediaeval Christian legend or does he correspond to any tradition of your Faith?' For material on Helena and stories of the discovery of the Cross Waugh consulted the Jesuit scholar Father Philip Caraman.

Somewhere in February or March 1946 Waugh suspended work on Helena. The reason for this is not clear. It is assumed that other work demanded his attention like the publication of his travel stories (When the Going was Good, 1946) and the attention generated by Brideshead Revisited. It may also be that he became weary of Helena for the time being. He had of course not chosen an easy subject to write a novel about and he was unfamiliar with the genre of historical fiction. Early in 1948 he intended to work on Helena again but nothing came of it as appears from remarks in a letter to his literary agent and his diary.[5] It would take more than a year before he actually resumed working on Helena. The writing apparently did not go very smoothly: 'I wish I could tell you that Helena progresses' (Letter 20 July 1949) and 'I write a sentence a week on the Empress Helena' (Letters 14 September 1949). Waugh, although himself very satisfied with the book, anticipated its failure with the public: '...Helena...is to be my masterpiece. No one will like it at all' (Letter 9 November 1949); and several weeks later he wrote: 'My Helena is a great masterpiece. How it will flop' (Letter 16 November 1949). In the beginning of March 1950 the book was finally finished: 'I have now written the last word of Helena and am quite out of work' (Letter 9 March 1950). In October of the same year the book was published by Chapman & Hall in London. It was dedicated to Penelope Betjeman.

Criticism of 'Helena'

As Waugh had foreseen the literary critics were not particularly favourable about Helena. They considered it not to be Waugh's best work and some even disliked it. According e.g. to The Spectator (13 October 1950) Helena was 'a lightly devotional, decorative, frequently entertaining, but not very substantial work of fiction.' The TLS (13 October 1950) comments that Helena fails by trying to do too much in a brief span. In America (11 November 1950) it is remarked that Helena is a streamlined, impressionistic historical novel with a sense of contemporaneity, but not exactly Waugh's metier. The critic of The Observer (5 October 1950) is extremely negative; he remarks that in spite of Waugh's reputation for wit, Helena is flagrantly dull, inelegant in both its seriousness and frivolity, and unconvincing. The New York Times (17 October 1950) comments that Helena is well-written but that it lacks the author's satiric thrusts, and that, though filled with religious feeling, it omits treatment of Helena's conversion. Extremely negative is also The Listener, whose critic comments that the saddest literary phenomenon of recent years is the insistence of Waugh be taken seriously and that Helena suggest an anti-dated radio script by a sub-scholar. Although there were some positive critics, on the whole Helena was unfavourably viewed.[6] Waugh was clearly disappointed since he considered Helena his best book. The positive reactions of his friends John Betjeman, Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford could hardly compensate for the generally hostile critics.[7]
Helena is an uneven book. This unevenness shows itself in the tone which stands in awkward contrast with the reverential theme of the book, the quest of a converted Roman empress for the most holy sign of Christianity. Waugh wants to present Helena as the perfect saint who had completely conformed to the will of God by doing that for which she was on earth: discovering the Cross. But this presentation loses a lot of its force when Helena uses expressions such as 'what a lark', 'what a sell', 'beastly' or 'bosh' and is given to fits of giggles. Feeble and offensive considering the circumstances of the late 1940s is the introduction of the Wandering Jew who helps Helena finding the Cross. He has the accent of a London East End go-getting Yid, and is presented as humble and full of self-mockery.[8] Waugh, who was not clear of anti-Jewish sentiments,[9] portrays a type of Jew which can hardly have been acceptable so shortly after the holocaust of World War II and the foundation of the state of Israel. The famous Oxford Greek scholar and friend of Waugh, Sir Maurice Bowra, considered the introduction of the Wandering Jew unhappy as appears from one of Waugh's letters. To him the story of the Wandering Jew was too important to downgrade its protagonist to a common tradesman in relics with commercial interests in the discovery of the Cross. It is noteworthy that Waugh himself afterwards understood that the Wandering Jew theme was not the strongest part of his book.[10] One wonders why Waugh did not keep to the original Late Antique legend in which the Jew Judas Kyriakos figures prominently and is a great help to Helena in finding the Cross. It would have made the novel more acceptable but also more convincing, especially since part of Waugh's British reading public may have known the Judas Kyriakos legend from the eighth-century Old English poem Elene by Cynewulf.

Waugh's witticisms are not always funny. The joke made by Lactantius - sometimes seen as Waugh's alter ego - in a conversation with the still unconverted Helena is considered for instance by his friend and biographer Christopher Sykes as most flagrant.[11] '´Suppose', says Lactantius, ´suppose that in years to come, when the Church's troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,' and he nodded towards the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit...' (Helena, 122). The pun of the joke is obvious but hardly funny and does not make the reader empathise with Lactantius. Waugh evidently did not like what Edward Gibbon had written about Helena's journey and the discovery of the Cross.[12] Because of the silence of contemporary sources like Eusebius and the Bordeaux pilgrim he concluded that the Cross could not have been found (yet) and certainly not by Helena: 'The silence of Eusebius and the Bordeaux pilgrim, which satisfies those who think, perplexes those who believe.'[13] For the true believer, Evelyn Waugh, Gibbon's opinion was anathema.


Evelyn Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. As he himself once wrote, the Catholic church represented the only genuine form of Christianity. This church was in his opinion 'the essential and formative constituent of western culture.'[14] The influence of Waugh's conversion does not show itself immediately in his work. Only in Brideshead Revisited, which was published in 1945, do Waugh's religious convictions come clearly to the fore. It is a book which could only have been written by a Roman Catholic. Helena is the novel in which his beliefs are most clearly shown and expressed. His main ideas about the world and the church can be found in this book.

According to Waugh, the Roman Catholic church was the constant factor in past, present and future. To him the Church constituted western civilisation and was equivalent to civilisation itself. The Roman Catholic church was furthermore a support in a chaotic world and a safe haven. Waugh's religiosity is rather pragmatic and rational. He did not like mysticism and its vague and elusive discussions, preferring an understandable and concrete faith. This becomes very clear from a discussion between Helena and Lactantius which takes place after Helena had been present at a lecture about gnosticism:

That evening Helena sent for Lactantius and said: ´I went to the lecture this afternoon...I couldn't understand a word he said. It's all bosh, isn't it?' ´All complete bosh, your Majesty.' ´So I supposed. Just wanted to make sure. Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?' ´I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.' ´Well, that's a straight answer anyway.' (Helena, 130-131). Another example for this attitude is the conversation between Constantius and Helena about the cult of Mithras in which Constantius had been initiated:
'There's no harm in your knowing the general story,' he said. 'It's very beautiful,' and he told her the tale of Mithras. He told it rather well and she listened intently. When it was finished she said, 'Where?' 'Where?' 'Yes, where did it happen? You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?' 'That's a very childish question.' 'Is it? And when did this happen? How do you know, if no one was there? And if the bull was the first thought of Ormazd and he had to be killed in order to make the earth, why didn't Ormazd just think of the earth straight away? And if the earth is evil, why did Mithras kill the bull at all?' ´I'm sorry I told you, if you simply wish to be irreverent.' ´I'm only asking. What I want to know is, do you really believe all this? Believe, I mean, that Mithras killed his bull in the same way you believe Uncle Claudius beat the Goths?' (Helena, 96-97).

To Waugh Christianity had to be straightforward and its history traceable and understandable. Such an attitude does not allow for sophistic discussions. Characteristic in this respect is the conversation between Helena and pope Sylvester:

And then Helena said something which seemed to have no relevance: ´Where is the cross, anyway?' she asked. ´What cross, my dear?' ´The only one. The real one.' ´I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. I don't think anyone has ever asked before.' ´It must be somewhere. Wood doesn't just melt like snow. It's not three hundred years old...Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union [i.e. the discussion about Arianism], there is a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I'm going off to find it', said Helena. (Helena, 208-209).

This simplicity of faith was essential to Waugh. For him the history of Christianity was literally tangible: there is question of a cross on which Christ had died, this cannot just have disappeared and thus can be found. The Cross to Waugh was real and he presents Helena's discovery of it as an event which can be dated and located. The legendary inventio crucis was a real thing for Waugh.

Waugh's attitude toward his faith also explains his interest in Helena and her quest. Initially Helena, as daughter of a king descended from the kings of Troy, wants to 'go and find the real Troy' (Helena, 5) to discover if it really existed. Helena identifies herself with Helen of Troy and her quest will consist of a return to her forefathers. However, fate or Providence has other plans with her and instead of searching for an earthly city, Helena goes to Jerusalem to find evidence for a City of God. One wonders whether Helena's search for God is reminiscent of Waugh's own quest and conversion to the Roman Catholic church. So much is certain that the humble figure of Helena had a great appeal on Waugh. For him she was exemplary in the sense that she recanted her initial quest for Troy in favour of that for which she was on earth:

She had completely conformed to the will of God. Others a few years back had done their duty gloriously in the arena. Hers was a gentler task, merely to gather wood. That was the particular, humble purpose for which she had been created.' (Helena, 259-260).

Helena's humbleness, her plainness, her self-discovery, her good taste and the fulfilment of her vocation through the discovery of the Cross were qualities which Waugh greatly admired and with which he could identify himself. It made her a saint to his liking: 'I liked Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor & hungry...She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she... [went] straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.'[15]


It is not known exactly which sources Waugh consulted for writing his Helena but we may safely assume that he had read all the relevant material. Nearly every page of Helena betrays Waugh's profound knowledge of the historical and legendary sources on Helena's life and the Constantinian period. The main source for Helena's life is Eusebius' Vita Constantini III 41-47, where Helena's journey to Palestine, presented by Eusebius as a pilgrimage, is described. Waugh certainly knew this work. Not only did he read the sources but he also gave them much thought as appears from a remark about the only ancient source he ever explicitly mentioned, the Itinerarium Burdigalense. In this pilgrim's report, dating from the year 333, the Cross, which according to Waugh should have been found already since Helena had visited Jerusalem some five years before, is not mentioned. Whereas Edward Gibbon concluded that the Cross could not have been there, Waugh's considerations led to another, more naïve, outcome: 'This morning the Itinerary of Bordeaux arrived from the London Library...Then, quite suddenly...the solution came to me - absolutely simple. He [the Bordeaux pilgrim] didn't mention the Cross because he never saw it; it was not on view. I have been to Rome many times and not seen the Cross there. It was only exposed on Good Friday and he was not in Jerusalem more than a few days' (Diary, 26 January 1946).

Waugh did not keep strictly to the sources but used them freely, as is of course the liberty of the novelist, and he often chose 'the picturesque in preference to the plausible' (Helena, IX). So, even though it seems reasonable from a historical point of view to argue that Helena came from Drepanum (Helenopolis) in Bithynia and was a maid in an inn (stabularia) when Constantius met her, Waugh presents her as the aristocratic daughter of the British King Coel. He considered Britain as likely a birthplace as any other (Helena, XI) and there are British legendary sources which can sustain this opinion. Britain has a rich Helena tradition as can be concluded for instance from Cynewulf's poem Elene (c. 800) as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum (12th century). The latter works describes how Coel, King of the Britons, concluded a peace treaty with the Roman Constantius, soon after which Coel died. Constantius became his successor and married Coel's daughter Helena (Britanniae nobilis alumna). However, in a way, Waugh is faithful to the more trustworthy sources which call Helena a stabularia by making her mad about horses and as portraying her as someone who likes to hang around the stables.

Waugh had to rely on his imagination for that part of Helena's life for which no sources are available, i.e. the period of her relationship with Constantius and her separation from him. Although it may be that she stayed at the imperial court in Nicomedia at the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century, it may also be, as Waugh prefers, that she lived in Dalmatia. We just do not know. After Constantine became emperor in 306 she probably stayed in or near Trier. The medieval Helena tradition of Trier and the fact that the Constantine's court stayed regularly in this German town makes this very likely. It is not improbable, as Waugh has it, that it was here that Helena first met Lactantius. The latter was at the time employed as the teacher of Constantine's son Crispus. Waugh allows himself large poetic license in situating Helena's first visit to Rome only in 326 on the occasion of her son's Vicennalia. No doubt she was present at the festivities for that occasion but sources indicate that she resided already in Rome in the Palatium Sessorianum for several years. It is uncertain whether Waugh knew of the historical evidence, mainly inscriptions and the Liber Pontificalis, for her possession of the Sessorian Palace. This palace was in all likelihood her regular residence after Constantine's victory at Mulvian bridge.

Nearly all persons in the novel are historical, the most important of whom are Helena herself of course, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine, Constantine's concubine Minervina, his wife Fausta, his son Crispus, his sister Constantia and her son Licinius, Lactantius, Pope Sylvester of Rome and Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem. Only four persons are entirely fictitious of whom Marcias is the most prominent. He is Helena's tutor in Britain and like her he is on a quest. He has found truth in gnosticism and is thus made the opposite of down-to-earth Helena. Besides Helena, Lactantius, Sylvester, Minervina and Crispus are portrayed with great sympathy. Lactantius may be considered a portrait of Waugh himself: 'He delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense...' (Helena, 120). Minervina and Crispus both deserve Waugh's sympathy because they are victims of Constantine's lust for power and his fear of losing that power. Like Helena, Minervina was abandoned for another woman and Crispus was killed by his father. Constantius, Constantine and Fausta are clearly disliked by Waugh.[16] He condemns their ruthless quest for power and their perversity. A good example of this is the description of Fausta's machinations at the imperial court to get rid of everybody who stands in her way. It is known that during the celebration of the vicennalia things had happened which cannot be reconstructed anymore but which had led to death of both Crispus and Fausta. It may be that Fausta wanted to have Crispus out of the way in favour of her own sons and that she falsely accused him before Constantine of having seduced her. When Constantine found out that Fausta had lied to him in order to get rid of Crispus, he had her killed in an over-heated bath. The alleged scheming of Fausta is seized upon by Waugh to demonstrate the degeneracy of the court and the way in which Constantine had been perverted by power. Constantine is portrayed as a ruler who had become victim of his own power by losing all sense of reality. In Helena he is a man who clearly considers himself as the most powerful on the world but who has no self-control anymore. He is the incarnation of vanity and a mentally disturbed man as becomes clear when he speaks about his own death: 'Sometimes I feel that in His bountiful mercy He may have something of the kind in store for me. I can't quite imagine myself dying in the ordinary way. Perhaps He will send a chariot, as He did for the prophet Elias... It wouldn't surprise me a at all - nor anyone else, I daresay' (Helena, 203). It has plausibly been argued that through his portraits of Constantine and others in power Waugh criticised the politicians of his own time most of whom he despised.[17]

In his book Waugh does not distinguish between what can be called more or less reliable historical writings and those sources which are downright legends. As a novelist he had to deal with the imaginative and legends stir the imagination. Legendary material which Waugh used for his book are of course the stories about the invention of the Cross. As mentioned above, these legends only originated several decades after Helena had visited Jerusalem. In these tales the discovery of the Cross is ascribed to Helena but we may safely assume, although Waugh himself would probably not agree, that Helena's discovery of the Holy Wood is fantasy. The legend was popular in Late Antiquity and spread rapidly. It is referred to in Ambrose's funeral speech for Theodosius the Great (395) and in the Church Histories of Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret. Waugh knew these stories in which Helena is shown the site where the Cross was buried through a dream. He also knew the version in which the Jew Judas Kyriakos helped Helena finding the Cross. This version was widespread in the Middle Ages and an account of it was included in Cynewulf's Elene and in the Legenda Aurea of Jacob of Voragine (13th century). The theme of the dream is used by Waugh in the passage where the Wandering Jew, who is reminiscent of Judas Kyriakos, appears to Helena in her sleep and shows her the site of the Cross. Also other elements of the legend, like the recognition of the True Cross by means of a healing miracle, Helena's building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the sending of part of the Cross and the nails to Constantine have been incorporated by Waugh. Another popular tale which was used by Waugh was the Sylvester-legend (Actus Sylvestri) which has the story of Constantine's conversion by the cure of the emperor's skin disease through the contact with baptismal water. Also the so-called Donatio Constantini is included by Waugh. According to this document, which is a historical forgery from the early Middle Ages, Constantine donated the City of Rome to Pope Sylvester and the Church. This piece of information is referred to in a conversation between Constantine and Sylvester. The emperor who has had it with Rome wants to found a New Rome, i.e. Constantinople:

'As for the old Rome, it's yours'...´But I rather wish we had it in writing all the same.' ´We will, monsignore. We will.'(Helena, 205).

From these examples, and many more could be given, it can be concluded that Waugh had wide knowledge of the historical and legendary sources. Helena is firmly based on the available writings from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and Waugh has skilfully incorporated this material using of course his imagination and qualities as a novelist. By doing this Waugh has created a new tale, 'something to be read; in fact a legend' (Helena, XIII).


Helena is a deeply personal book. Waugh felt very much attracted to Helena's sanctity and the deed which she performed: the inventio crucis. He considered the book by far the best of all he had written and it was the greatest disappointment of his literary life that Helena was received with indifference and aroused much criticism. In spite of the fact that apparently few people liked it, from a commercial point of view the novel was fairly successful. Three months after its appearance 15,626 copies were already sold. A French translation was published soon. In 1951 the second half of the book was dramatised for a radio play which was broadcast by the BBC in December of that year. Roles were performed by, amongst others, Dame Flora Robson as Helena and Sir John Gielgud as Constantine. Although 1951 saw Penguin publication of ten Waugh titles, Helena was the only novel omitted; it was only added to the list in 1963.

Helena, which may perhaps be called a hagiographical romance rather than a historical novel, is not an easy book. Reading it is probably only worthwhile with some knowledge about Waugh and his religious notions, some information about the Constantinian period and acquaintance with the legends of the discovery of the Cross. However, for those who have more than an average knowledge in these fields the book raises many questions. Waugh was therefore right when he wrote in one of his letters (14 September 1949) when the book was not yet finished: '[Helena] will be interesting only to the very few people who know exactly as much history as I do. The millions who know more will be disgusted; the few who know less, puzzled.'

Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, London 1980
Humphrey Carpenter, The Brideshead Generation. Evelyn Waugh and his Friends, London 1989
Michael Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, London 1976
A.A. Devitis, Roman Holiday. The Catholic Novels of Evelyn Waugh, London 1958
Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta. The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross, Leiden 1992
Han J.W. Drijvers & Jan Willem Drijvers, The Finding of the True Cross. The Judas Kyriakos Legend in Syriac. Introduction, Text and Translation, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vol. 565, Subsidia Tomus 93, Louvain 1997
D. Gallaher (ed.), The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, London 1983
Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh. A Biography, London 1994
Jeffrey Heath, The Picturesque Prison. Evelyn Waugh and His Writing, London 1982
Ian Littlewood, The Writings of Evelyn Waugh, Oxford 1983
M. Morriss, D.J. Dooley, Evelyn Waugh. A Reference Guide, Boston 1984
Hans A. Pohlsander, Helena: Empress and Saint, Chicago 1995
Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh. Vol.1: The Early Years 1903-1939; Vol. 2: No Abiding City 1939-1966, London 1986-1992
Martin Stannard (ed.), Evelyn Waugh. The Critical Heritage, London 1984
Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh. A Biography, London 1975
Evelyn Waugh, Helena, London 1950

[1] References are to the first edition of Helena of 1950.
[2] Speech Edinburgh Rectorial Election, The Times, 8 November 1951. In: Donat Gallagher (ed.), The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (London 1983) 407.
[3] Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh. A Biography, London 1975, 318.
[4] Letter to Nancy Mitford, 28 January 1946: "I have got a working edition of Gibbon...Please get me sets of Cambridge Ancient Modern & Mediaeval History."
[5] To A.D. Peters: "I am finishing the life of St. Helena". Diary, 5 February 1948: "My Lenten resolution to start work on Helena has not come to much." Diary, 1 March 1948: "A hangover from Sunday's remission of Lenten abstinence...When the hangover is over I shall work on Helena."
[6] For more examples, see M. Morriss, D.J. Dooley, Evelyn Waugh. A Reference Guide, Boston 1984, 36-40.
[7] Waugh, Letters of 9 and 16 November 1950; Mitford, Letter 10 November 1950.
[8] Brian Howard, one of Waugh's acquaintances from his Oxford time, is behind the portrait of the Wandering Jew as he was for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited; cf. letter to Nancy Mitford, 28 January 1946: "Can you politely ask any of your jewish friends whether they know the sources of the Wandering Jew legend?...I am introducing him (B. Howard again) into the Helena book & would like to get the full facts."
[9] Cf. letter to Nancy Mitford, 15 February 1952: "Yes, I am afraid I must admit to a shade of anti-jew feeling. Not anti-Semite."
[10] Letter to Bowra, 17 November 1950: "Of course you are quite right about the Wandering Jew but to have introduced a character of tragedy and mysterious tragedy at that into that stage of the story would have been all wrong so I had to make a mere shadow of him and so spoil the real story. I ought to have thought of some quite other way of getting Helena on the scent." Bowra had written: "Nor am I quite happy about the Wandering Jew's treatment of Our Lord. Surely he spat in his face, and his punishment is to live with his own hard heart until forgiveness comes to him from God? His doom is that he cannot save himself. Surely a terrible and most important story, which should not be watered down...he is more formidable than a mere Jewish tradesman."
[11] Sykes, Evelyn Waugh, 319.
[12] Cf. Waugh, Diary 26 January 1946: "...and Helena's journey, and finding it mentioned pompously and slyly in Gibbon."
[13] E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. by J.B. Bury (10th ed.), vol. II, 455 n.66.
[14] Letter to Father d'Arcy, August 1930. In: S. Hastings, Evelyn Waugh. A Biography, London 1994, 225.
[15] Letter to John Betjeman, 9 November 1950.
[16] About Constantine Waugh wrote in one of his letters: "He's not a sympathetic figure (to me)..." (Letter, 18 December 1951). In another letter he remarked: "[Constantine] is a shit in my book..." (Letter, 4 February 1946).
[17] Although Helena is a historical novel, it evokes the 20th century. It is beyond the limits of this paper to deal with this aspect of the book.

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