Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom-- Evelyn Waugh
He wrote of Saint Helena and was contemplating a book on the history of the crusades. Deeply interested in questions of faith and beauty, his books are also filled with characters who are impossibly selfish.
One of the most depressing books I have ever read, A Handful of Dust reminded me something of the Heart of Darkness and A Sheltering Sky. Books I adored, and yet books that also left me worried and depressed. A Handful of Dust perhaps being the most depressing story I had ever read, except that there was Tony: "Tony, who has inherited a large country estate, is a traditionalist, a man who believes that with proper care, you can preserve the character of houses and of people."
As book reviewer Jenny Hendrix wrote:
Tory, class apologist, snob, born-again Catholic, anti-Semite, admirer of Mussolini and Franco, employer in the mid-1960s of a Victorian ear trumpet, and general Pooterish misanthrope, Waugh is a difficult man to love.
But then again, there was that beautiful chapel scene in Bridehead Revisited....Like Conrad's "Fidelity," Roman Catholicism for Waugh was a clinging to the past as a means of avoiding the dismal banality of our modern times, That it, it becomes for Waugh a means to escape the relentless utilitarianism of our times--so lacking in beauty and the numinous, so that the virtue of preserving the character of houses and people--just like Ryder's conversion to Roman Catholicism-- is a way out of the modern predicament --as Hendrix says:
By attaching himself to something ancient, Waugh was able to remain conservative even as Modernism, as he saw it, led the rest of history astray. (Joyce “ends up a lunatic,” he once said; he abhorred Picasso, plastics, and jazz.) A man committed to the defense of a nonexistent world, he loved nothing so much as a unicorn.
Helena is the only novel written by Evelyn Waugh that ever went out of print-- and, not surprisingly (being how contrary he was in everything), he is said to have considered it his best work. The novel takes up a Medieval British tale that Saint Helena was actually the daughter of the Roman-British king Coel Hen. Although it is not very historically solid, the tale was widely known in England and depicting this Empress as a gangly British tomboy who wants more than anything to see the world is a stroke of genius...For one has to explain the eternally youthful passion and faith that informed this miraculous 4th century journey.
Helena's journey to the Holy Land to find the True Cross is a story that overwhelms one in Jerusalem-- as it is told and re-told. Jerusalem was her city, after all. Having traveled there as an old woman of eighty, she worked tirelessly founding basilicas (pointing her imperial fingers and saying, "this is just the place for a basilica") and searching tirelessly for the true cross.
Digging down-- in her dreams and at excavation sites-- she was to eventually uncover those three crosses, and gaining divine help she discerned which of the three was the cross that Christ died on. Likened by Waugh to that of the Three Magi, Helena's one historic act of devotion would live on in history-- generating the obsession with relics that would come to dominate the Middle Ages and lead to the building of the greatest church in Christendom.
This search for truth-- for metaphor and something eternal is what drives Saint Helena and captures Waugh in his own seeking. It is a wonderful novel. And its message is simply stated at the end of the story:
Above all the babble of her age and ours she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is Hope.
(After visiting the Holy Land for his novel Helena, Waugh wrote: 'One has been at the core of one's religion. It's all there, with superhuman faults and its superhuman triumphs, and one finally realises, perhaps for the first time, that Christianity did not strike its first roots at Rome, or Canterbury, or Geneva or Maynooth, but here in the Levant' In the novel, loosely based on the life of St Helena, he writes: 'Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion, that Jesus died at a particular time and at a particular place. And there alone lies hope.')