This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.
I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:
“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. 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 toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”
Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.
Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”
This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”