Most people have a favourite novelist and even a favourite novel, something that they come back to again and again. And there are some novels that are polarising: some people love a certain book, and others loathe it. I myself could never see the real attraction of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which some friends of mine think is the funniest thing ever written. It is very funny, I admit, and there are some immortal lines, particularly about what it was that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed, but it does not quite, as they say, float my boat.
I used to feel the same about Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. The wise Master of Campion Hall, Fr Paul Edwards SJ, held that Helena was the greatest of all Waugh’s works. He could quote long passages and he asserted that it was, of all the author’s books, the best written. But my tutor the great Mrs Bednarowska used to damn Helena with faint praise. What puzzled me was that Waugh himself considered Helena his favourite novel.
Helena is the most specifically religious and Catholic of his works of fiction. The Loved One is set in a cemetery and deals with death, and even features a non-denominational clergyman, but has absolutely nothing to do with religion. Mrs Bednarowska’s view was that Waugh was absolutely no good in writing about matters of faith: he was a profound believer, but he wrote almost as an atheist. His greatest work, perhaps, is A Handful of Dust, which is a very bleak book indeed – a book about human depravity, which carries within it no hint of redemption.
I sort of agree. Novel writing and religion tend not to go together very well. Novels are solitary productions; they are all about the individual consciousness; they arose in the time of the enlightenment. Religion and faith are corporate matters. A religious person ought not to be self-obsessed, but novels are about self-obsession, surely.
Which means that to me Helena is a puzzle – a religious novel, a book that fails as a novel, and fails as a religious tract too. And yet, and yet…. I find it creeping up on me more and more with the passage of the years. I have all but forgotten about Mrs Beaver and Lady Brenda Last, Lady Marchmain and Charles Ryder…. But the old Empress who goes in search of the Cross “because it states a fact” and who then disappears into the mists of history – I find myself thinking about her more and more.
Perhaps Helena is the greatest of Waugh’s works. Perhaps the rest is mere flimflam (though flimflam of the highest quality) and Helena is what really matters. Maybe a hundred years from now Waugh the novelist will be forgotten and Waugh the religious prophet remembered – because Helena’s message seems more pertinent now than when it was written in 1950, concerned as it is with the historical truth of the Catholic faith. If Waugh’s novel comes to the fore in the future, he of all people would love that, I am sure.