The book Helena by Evelyn Waugh is a fictional story based on the life of St. Helena, covering her life from before she married to the finding of the Cross and her death. Books such as this one present to the reader the life of a saint in a relatable way. They show the transformation of sinner to saint, yet Helena is truly a simple saint. She is the kind of saint who shows those in this world that sanctity is not beyond their reach. In Helena Waugh portrays the transformation of Helena from a haughty, fickle, rather vain princess to a determined, faithful, confident but grumpy Christian woman. This transformation is caused by her seemingly insignificant every day choices and yet they lead her to discover the Cross and reach Heaven.
At the beginning of the book, the reader finds Helena in her most naïve, selfish state of life. She is a young girl, still a teen, and acts very much like one. The opening scene portrays Helena listening to her tutor Marcias reading the story of the Illiad and Helena of Troy. It is here that her selfishness and pride are first displayed. She compares herself to Helena of Troy, connecting herself to her in more ways than is practical, real, or healthy. As she sits, she allows her simple surroundings and thoughts to distract her from her tutor’s reading, as though she were so important that history was unimportant in contrast. In this way she puffs herself up, blinding herself to who she truly is.
A perfect portrayal of this haughtiness in Helena is shown in the scene in which sits on her throne with her family. As a recital is performed in front of her, Helena sits and allows her thoughts to race. She is on a horse, fighting with it for control. As the play progresses, she gains control of the horse and finally is able to trot arrogantly around, allowing the horse to display her majesty and strength. It is at such a point and with such thoughts that she boldly meets the gaze of Constantius. These fantastic dreams blind Helena to the fact that she has no true power. She is the daughter of a king, but she is not destined for more than being a wife and mother. Dreaming of taking control of her own life and seeking to see great cities such as Rome and Troy only cause her unrest. The life she has is not enough for her, and her dreams and false sense of power lead her to follow an ill path.
Swayed by hopes of fulfilling her dreams, Helena makes a choice to disregard her father’s apprehension at her marriage to Constantius. At first it might seem as though Helena truly loves Constantius, but her words belie that she does not. “I must go with Constantius, Papa, wherever he goes,” she says to her father, “Besides, he’s promised to take me to the City.” At first her words relax the reader. She must love Constantius to be willing to travel with him anywhere he might be called on military duty, but her last words reveal her true motivation. There is nothing she wants more than to travel the world and visit Rome and to her the offer of marriage from a foreigner such as Constantius is the perfect way to do so. In her immature state she does not think through all the possible consequences of such a decision. She thinks only of her own feelings and wishes. With this childish mindset she enters marriage.
Marriage really does not change Helena. She keeps her focus on reaching Rome and is openly disappointed when Constantius tells her they are not immediately heading for the City. Staying in Nish and submitting to Constantius’ bidding starts a growth in Helena though. Up unto this point, she never had to submit to anyone. She did not listen to her tutor about her attitude towards history. She did not listen to her father about her marriage with Constantius. Now though, she has to obey her husband. While this starts something new in her, it is quite a while longer before a change truly takes place.
The start of Helena’s change begins with her conception of Constantine. At first she seems rather proud of the fact, but in an odd way, treating the situation more like having won a valued prize than having received a gift. Because she is with child, she is left behind as Constantius finally travels to Rome. Of course this reality is hard for her to accept. For a while she is mournful and “[half-grudges] the child in her womb its life and power to hold her imprisoned.” Yet as time goes on she tries to accept her situation and wait patiently for the time when she can finally visit Rome. This is the first time Helena has truly accepted something through her own wishes. Before, when Constantius was with her, she accepted things only because he would not put up with her if she did not. Now, left alone for months, she has a choice to make. She can mourn and give herself pity, or she can accept her lot and try to make the best of her time.
By the time Constantine is grown, Helena has truly changed. She has grown to be satisfied with her lot in life and not to fight against it. In fact, when Constantius tells her he has remarried and divorced her she responds with silence. The first thing she asks of Constantius is not ‘why’. Rather, she asks whether she can return to Britain with Constantine. Her transformation is not quite complete though. She has accepted her fate, but she still has yet to move forward. A conversation she has with one of her friends portrays this. Her friend tells her she acts as though her life is over. To this she replies, “It is really, at least all I used to think was life.”
Up until her divorce, Helena truly seemed to live for one thing: getting to Rome. As her life went on though, she became more separated from the hope of fulfilling this desire. She seemed to let go a little more each time the fulfillment of her dream seemed to further distance itself from her. After her divorce she truly lets go, but having held on to hopes for so long, she seems lost without a purpose. In this state of mind, she first encounters Christianity.
At first Helena only questions Christianity as she had done with every other religion she had encountered. Other believers from different religions had called her questions ‘childish’, but Christianity did not seem to think her questions childish. In fact, it seemed to have answers to all her questions, even if she had to wait to receive them. While the book does not describe this in detail, it is clear that becoming Christian truly completes Helena’s transformation.
Before becoming Christian, Helena was haughty and proud, yet not exactly very confident. She clung to dreams and to others such as Constantius to give herself worth. She found confidence in them, not in herself. As a Christian though, she is perfectly confident in herself. Nothing seems to daunt her, and her confidence is astounding. In her dealings with her son the emperor and his wife, she is never swayed by political correctness. She says what she thinks and asks questions about what she does not understand. It is this attitude of character, this firm confidence that leads her to finding the True Cross.
Once the idea of finding the True Cross enters Helena’s head, she is determined to follow through with it. She enlists the aid of others in finding the Cross and through it all her unwavering confidence guides the mission. Her actions were very ordinary and it is in this way that Helena is truly a simple saint. This simplicity is what Waugh said he found most appealing about St. Helena. He said, “I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of sanctity…She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.” She was not a martyr, nor a great Theologian, nor a pious, virtuous religious. She was only a grandmother determined to find the True Cross, and a rather cantankerous one at that.
The life Helena led is a wonderful example for every Christian in the modern world. It shows them that sanctity is not impossible for them. Helena lived a rather normal life. She was a self-centered young girl who made mistakes which left her in a rather pitiable state later in life. Yet her choices allowed her to make the most of her situation. She became Christian and discovered the True Cross, a feat which will always be remembered. So it is that Helena’s story, the story of a saint, is the merely that of a girl who chose to do what she ought.
 Waugh (Chicago, IL: Loyala Press, 1950), 35.
 Waugh, 67.
 Waugh, 78.
 Waugh, xiv.
Ratings (# out of 5)
Romance: 4.5 (There is a part where possible intimacy is hinted at between Constantine and his wife.)
Substance Abuse: 5
While the story may be one that is suitable for any age, the deep concepts will most likely go over a child’s head.
Don’t be satisfied with mediocrity!