Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Helena” as Want to Read:
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview


3.62  ·  Rating details ·  1,409 ratings  ·  178 reviews
The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, made the historic pilgrimage to Palestine, found pieces of wood from the true Cross, and built churches at Bethlehem and Olivet. Her life coincided with one of the great turning-points of history: the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. The enormous conflicting forces of the age, and the corr ...more
Kindle Edition, 225 pages
Published December 11th 2012 by Little, Brown and Company (first published 1950)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.62  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,409 ratings  ·  178 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Helena
Mar 05, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british
I Want My World Back

I doubt that a recognised talent like Waugh would spend time on an historical fantasy like Helena without a purpose. So reading the book one is constantly searching for his intention. Piety? Whimsey? Correction of historical perceptions? Who knows for sure. But there are some clues worth nothing.

The Roman Empire had its founding myths; but it had no ideology, no coherent theory of itself, and therefore no real culture except what it borrowed from Greece. Instead it had an eco
Dhanaraj Rajan
It is a short novel (historical novel) that speaks of the life of St. Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, the Great. She is also popularly known for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and finding the True Cross on which was crucified Jesus Christ.

Few Remarks:

It is an historical novel. And so the history, rather the Roman politics comes more alive than the character. Helen appears as a simple clog in the heavy machine of history. She does not emerge a live character with flesh and b
Aug 09, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: evelyn-waugh
A story about Helena mother of Constantine one of the Roman Emperors. The story mixes fact with fiction and is entertaining as well as satirical in places. The clergy is trying to hoodwink Helena who sees through their lies and exaggerations.

The first part goes through her life in Britain and courtship with Constantius. Later he divorces her and their son rises to be Emperor but also develops an ego and his wife Fausta manipulates him. However, when she tries to get him to murder his mother Hel
Robert Corzine
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a very different sort of historical fiction. Waugh does evoke the time and place of the fourth Century Roman Empire but he never leaves you to really imaginatively enter into that world. He's always at your side, nudging the careful reader in the ribs to share a laugh at the expense of self-important intellectuals or effete no-talent artists trying to pass off their lack of ability as refined aesthetic sensibility. Some laughs, he throws in just for the fun of it and because he can (look ...more
Witty and sometime humorous novella of St. Helen, mixed with a good deal of hagiography. The last few chapters were my favorite part: a "Golden Legend"-type pilgrimage to Jerusalem where Helena finds the True Cross and other relics. I also relished the literary or classical allusions such as Helena's father, King Coel of the Trinovantes calling for mead and music then dismissing his bowl, fiddlers three and pipe. Also Helena takes the young Constantine to "Government House" in her husband's post ...more
Patrick St-Amand
Interesting little novel incorporating fiction with historical events. I'll say that if you don't have a Christian background you might find this a bit of a bore. It's not particularly engaging plot-wise but there are some nice satirical moments. ...more
Amy Hughes
In this short book Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) takes a turn with Constantine's famously pious mother Helena. We know little about the woman behind all of the rumors and conjecture so her life is perfectly suited to a fictive rendering. We don't even know where she was born, only that she was rumored to be low-born and that her early life had something do with being around inns and/or horses, possibly but very possibly not including some sort of sexual servitude. Large swaths of her life ...more
Edoardo Albert
Dec 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Helena is probably Evelyn Waugh's least regarded novel but it is a personal favourite. In part, that's because of Waugh's portrayal of Helena herself, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine, which is one of his most vivid and affecting character studies. But most of all it is for the single finest passage in Waugh's writing - and there are so many - but Helena's prayer outmasters them all for it is Waugh's prayer for the salvation of his own soul and I can do no better than to quote the fi ...more
Waugh called this book "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write". I would amend that to 'far the best thing he ever tried to write.'

Briefly, the book recreates the life of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and credited with finding the cross of Christ hidden at Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

The book's style oscillates between a fictional historical novel and a traditional Life of a Saint. The first three-quarters documents Helena's life, from her hypothetical youth as
Jan 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A completely different book than my love, Brideshead, but that is okay. This novel tells the story of St. Helena and her discovery of the True Cross. Yes, it's a hagiography, but it is also a good story, a commentary on our times, and literary apologetic, as well.

There are delightful moments, such as when Helena's father, King Coel, calls for his pipe, his bowl of food, and three fiddlers. Lots of clever writing by Waugh.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its treatment of conv
Dec 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Give me real bones every time."

You know, I kind of hate it when I walk into a bookstore looking for presents for somebody else, and walk OUT of that bookstore holding an impulse buy for myself.

But I couldn't help it, guys. It's Evelyn Waugh. Evelyn Waugh at his happiest and most Catholic. I had to. I HAD TO.

Anyway. I'm happy to report that stupid decision though that may have been, I have no regrets. Helena is not Brideshead Revisited, but I mean, no book is, and two masterpieces of exactly t
Bryn Hammond
Jan 16, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: imagined-fiction
Exquisite short-form historical fiction. Waugh combines an authenticity, springing from his sincere feeling for a saint's life, with a historical distance of narrative, sometimes ironical, oftentimes, again, striking those genuine notes of sadness and of hope. I don't wonder he was fond of this book.

Waugh's wisdoms aren't always mine, or even often, but they are captured in story and movingly conveyed. His witticisms are lovely, and the creative anachronism of many of them doesn't detract from
Mark Summers
This is a story imaging the life of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine who "legalized" the practice of Christianity with his Edict of Milan. Helena is herself credited with finding the "True Cross" upon which Jesus called the Christ was crucified. The author of this work, Evelyn Waugh, writes in the preface, "The Age of Constantine is strangely obscure. Most of the dates and hard facts ... soften and dissolve on examination. The life of St. Helena begins and ends in surmise and le ...more
Jan 22, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Sometimes I feel as though the empire were an unseaworthy boat; she brings leak leak in one place, you caulk it up, bail out and then before you can settle down to navigation, water comes spurting in somewhere else.”


“Unpleasant associations are the seed of the church.”


“The Church isn’t a cult for a few heroes. It is the whole of fallen mankind redeemed.”


This o
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics, boring
Listen, I'm not one to drag the dead, but I mean...the author sure did with the Romans, so I don't think he'd mind.

This book was uncomfortable. Not in the "wow, I'm out of my comfort zone and my world is expanding" way, but more of a "the author sure is spending a lot of time talking about Helena's chest". There was a passage where Helena slept with her husband and the next morning, she rode a horse, which the author claimed reinstated her maidenhood?? Not to mention a literal slave argued that
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a simple and simply great novel. Beyond the ironies and wit (always substantial with Waugh), we have a perfect examination of the grittiness of Christianity and the understated holiness of a saint.

A great work need not be lengthy; it need not have the psychological oddities and suffering that appears to pass for literature today. Helena offers two major insights: firstly, that the Christian faith is radically different from others, for it states bald facts: Christ was crucified & Christ
Matthew Colvin
Contains some witty bits, and makes Helena an interesting and likable character. Trashes Constantine unmercifully and probably beyond the reasonable bounds of cynicism. Waugh's Roman Catholic doctrine of relics is presented winsomely, if somewhat heavy handedly, but it did not persuade this Protestant one bit. The best parts of the book are the passages that require a bit of historical knowledge to get the joke, as when Constantine leaves Rome to pope Sylvester, and one of the priests present sa ...more
Dec 14, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I suppose I should write a few words, because I’m typically such a Waugh fan. This book, though, has almost none of his usual wit evident in works like like Scoop, A Handful of Dust, or even dramatic stories like his famous Brideshead Revisited.

It, instead, has very thick, overwrought sentences. The story follows Helena – the woman who will become Saint Helena – through her life. It’s mostly fiction, tied together with the thin bits of fact they had in the 1940s. It’s marked by Waugh’s absolute
Meghan Furey
This is more of a historical novel than a portrayal of Helena, the mother of Constantine. For a woman with such a pivotal role in the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire, I really wish that the author created a more vivid portrayal and brought her front and center. I did like the authors portrayal of some of the other characters. Her husband was a real dink though!
Maximilian Nightingale
I loved it! Waugh is pretty clever in how fills in the blanks and makes the whole novel a beautiful reflection on Roman Catholicism, and how it differs from mere mythology or philosophy. A must read for anyone visiting Rome or Jerusalem. Very funny depictions of Constantine and Eusebius too.
Apr 20, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book to read during the Easter season.
Gui Nabais Freitas
'Once, long ago, before flowers were named which struggled and fluttered below the rain-swept walls, there sat at an upper window a princess and a slave reading a story which even then was old: or, rather, to be entirely prosaic, on the wet afternoon of the Nones of May in the year (as it was computed later) of Our Lord 273, in the city of Colchester, Helena, red-haired, youngest daughter of Coel, Paramount Chief of the Trinovantes, gazed into the rain while her tutor read the Iliad of Homer in ...more
Mar 01, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019-fiction
Let’s first try and classify the genre of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. His characters—or, at least, many of them—are known to have existed…so the book is historical, nonfiction, if you will. Yet Waugh calls Helena a novel…so it must be fiction. It is also a religious tale, and we may as well add part fantasy, as Waugh plays fast and loose with dreams and myths. There you have it: Helena is a true, fantasy tale of religious, historical fiction!

But the genre doesn’t really matter much when compared to t
May 07, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Very odd book, some nice flashes of Waughvian comedy particularly in the contemporary, colloquial dialogue, but they're set pieces within a plodding exposition that is ultimately not only humourless but sanctimonious. Not quite a novel, not quite a hagiography; its inconsistencies suggest less postmodernism avant la lettre than they betray a native satirist (and quintessential Briton of his class and moment) struggling awkwardly to justify and also to subordinate his own sensibilities and talent ...more
Feb 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If we are to believe one of Evelyn's Waugh's children, Helena was his favorite novel. There is a good bit of religious inquiry in this tale, starting with young Helena's tutelage in Britain where she had a happy, free life under the watch of her father, King Coel. Helena frequently complained she could not get a straight answer when she boldly questioned teachers and the religious. She believed when she was taken by ambitious young man to wife and then away from Britain that she would finally ge ...more
A Tissue of Delightful Lies

The three-star rating is a compromise. As a rattling good yarn, and a beautifully written one to boot, this book deserves four. Yet for its proselytizing intent and the liberties it takes with history in order to further that intent, it deserves no more than one.

Evelyn Waugh was a prose stylist of the first rank. There are images and sentences here that are almost Nabokovian--the comparison of the Empress Fausta to a doll left floating in the sea after a shipwreck, for
May 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, catholic
I read this book years ago after re-reading Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. It wasn't your typical "lives of the saints" but Helen appeared very real in this telling of the saint and her search for the true cross of Christ. I need to re-read this book! ...more
Edward Renehan
May 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Eloquent and devout. Takes the scattered remnants of facts that we have regarding the life of Helena and her discovery of the True Cross, and weaves them together into an elegant narrative. Waugh emphasizes that this is a novel, with much invention added to what little we know. But there is an essential spiritual truth underlying all.
Jul 07, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was all over the place--It had moments of hilarious observation (like basically everything Helena said), moments of sadness, and long stretches that were utterly boring. Overall, it just didn't work for me but I'm glad I read it because Evelyn is awesome, duh. ...more
May 11, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british-lit
This is amateurish historical fiction/hagiography that lacks Waugh's usual wit and craftmanship. ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Goodreads Librari...: Duplicates 2 12 May 18, 2022 07:42AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter, #2)
  • Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad
  • The Evening and the Morning
  • Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited
  • The Cross (Kristin Lavransdatter, #3)
  • The Power and the Glory
  • The Heart of the Matter
  • He Leadeth Me
  • The Jeweler's Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony Passing on Occasion Into a Drama
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • My Life in Middlemarch
  • Divine Mercy for Moms: Sharing the Lessons of St. Faustina
  • The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT
  • The Lives of Moths: A Natural History of Our Planet's Moth Life
  • Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn
  • Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership
  • A History of Madagascar
  • Giants in the Earth
See similar books…
Evelyn Waugh's father Arthur was a noted editor and publisher. His only sibling Alec also became a writer of note. In fact, his book “The Loom of Youth” (1917) a novel about his old boarding school Sherborne caused Evelyn to be expelled from there and placed at Lancing College. He said of his time there, “…the whole of English education when I was brought up was to produce prose writers; it was al ...more

Related Articles

In most historical romances, love and marriage go together like...well, a horse and carriage. But what if the girl part of the girl-meets-boy...
58 likes · 14 comments
“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, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.” 6 likes
“The way ran zigzag through a forest of pine which the bitter wind, still that morning, had turned to ice; every bough was adorned with lines of stalactite which shivered and glittered in the morning sun; every needle had a brilliant, vitreous case and when she flicked her whip at a wayside shrub she brought down a tinkling shower of ice-leaves, each the veined impression of its crisp, green counterpart.” 6 likes
More quotes…