"It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. 'I got the real low-down at last,' she told her friends. 'The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel "the Invention of the Cross".'"Attentive readers will recognize this as the uproarious Preface to the hilarious historical novel by Evelyn Waugh, Helena. As a treat--and to avoid tedious editorial work--I decided to re-read it last Saturday knowing that today's feast was coming up. In so doing, I realized I'd forgotten just how much of the novel is given over to ruthless mocking of the pieties and politics of empire.
In Waugh's hands Helena is the key figure who "invents" the true cross and so allows Christians, from her day to our own, to mark September 14th as a festival of the cross's exaltation and triumph. Waugh, a master craftsman of English prose who would have been educated in Latin and who loved using deliberate archaisms, is of course using the verb "invent" here in an older sense of "to come upon, to find"--while also slyly playing on the more common connotation of "creating or producing with the imagination," which of course his novel was itself doing. (The word itself is derived from the Latin verb invenire, to come upon or find.)
Helena was published in 1950 by Waugh as an historical novel and roman à clef devoted to exploring the notion of vocation through the life of the Dowager Empress of Rome, St. Helena, mother of Constantine the great. Her vocation, in Waugh's eyes, was to 'invent' (=find) the true cross that had been thought to be lost forever.
This novel is full of archaic language, buried puns, double entendres, and jokes at the expense of just about everybody--socialist politicians in 1950s Britain, heretical churchmen, tendentious historians (e.g., Gibbon), sclerotic bureaucracies of both church and state, youth "culture" and much else besides, including Eastern Christians. Such mockery holds up strikingly well today--plus ça change....
Waugh's exposure to the Christian East was extremely limited, and he never missed an opportunity to trumpet the supposed superiority of Latin Christianity, rather provincially portraying the East in the worst light possible (cf. his description of Alexandrian liturgies of coronation in Scoop) but I have never held that against him.
Here in this scene Waugh clearly seems to have in his sights the Eastern exaltation of Constantine, whom the Byzantine tradition calls "co-equal to the apostles," a notion Waugh ridicules mercilessly. After a long exile from court, Helena is back in Rome to see her son Constantine, whose court is portrayed as nothing so much as an opéra bouffe, with the emperor himself perhaps the most absurd figure:
From the neck down he was all upholstery. A surcoat of imperial purple, laced with floriations of gold wire and studded with amorphous pearls, hung stiff as a carpet to the carpeted floor. It was sleeveless, and at the arms an undergarment billowed out, peacock-hued, ending in lace ruffles and a pair of coarse, much-jewelled hands. Above the surcoat was a wide collar of gold and enamel, a massive thing suited to the bull-neck; its miniatures told indifferently the stories of the gospel and of Mount Olympus. Above the collar rose the face, pale now as his father's; he was rouged but purely for ornamentBut none of this much interests Helena. Instead, she cannot take her eyes off her son's imperial head:
'My dear boy, what on earth have you got on your head?'
The face above the collar assumed an expression of alarm. 'On my head?' He put up a hand as though to dislodge some bird which might inadvertently have perched there. 'Is there anything on my head?'
Two courtiers danced forward. They were shorter than Constantine and made little jumps to see what was amiss.
Without excess of ceremony Constantine inclined to them. 'Well, what is it? Take it off at once, whatever it is.'
The courtiers craned and peered; one raised a finger and touched. They looked at one another. They looked at the Empress Dowager in abject consternation.
"That green wig,' said Helena.After telling his mother he has a whole collection of such wigs ("some are very pretty") he attempts to rescue his image by barking at his courtiers:
'To work, to work,' said the Thirteenth Apostle.For those who are interested in more on Waugh: Earlier this year I noted some thoughts on Waugh here, and elaborated on them here at greater length. But for a fun and funny read, a quick read, to celebrate today's feast, read Helena.