More Historical Goodies from Helena

| | Comments (1)

One of the great delights of any work of historical fiction is to find out things that were previously unknown; to see how a writer works historical fact into a fictional work. I've already shared with you one interesting fact that, had I known it before, slipped my mind entirely. Waugh peppers his work with them and deals with them slyly. Today's example is particularly fine.

St. Helena's father, according to some sources, was King Coel, or King Cole. Yes, indeed, he of the rhyme:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
and a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe
and he called for his bowl
and he called for his fiddlers three.

Well indeed, in the course of the beginning of this novel we are treated to a scene in which King Coel entertains the visiting Constantius with a long and wearisome musical evening celebrating his lineage. Latter, Coel is considering whether or not to allow Constantius to woe his daughter.

from Helena
Evelyn Waugh

"Mead," roared Coel, "and music. No, not your"--as all the bards came bundling in--"only the three strings and the pipe. I have to think."

What a wonderful and sly working in of the material of a nursery rhyme.

Overall in the novel, Waugh has not lost his edge and edginess--there are still sharp jabs at human nature and foibles; however, the overall tone of the book is much less sarcastic and misanthropic than the majority of his fiction. There is about the work a surprising gentleness and cleverness that shows Waugh at his very best.

My only question and lament is, why couldn't his biographies be nearly so interesting? Waugh is obviously as master of narrative prose. Was he unable to get close enough to those he would chronicle to turn their stories into the stuff of readable, entertaining, and entrancing art? Whatever the reason for the failure, such a lack is not part of Helena. A masterful storyteller and novelist at his very best. The novel is perhaps not so good (as a novel) as say, A Handful of Dust or even Vile Bodies, but that may be due, in part, to the limitations of the particular genre. The prose is rich and beautifully crafted--the novel is a breeze to read. I haven't finished yet, so stay tuned, but if the work continues in the same high quality it has presently, I anticipate a very strong recommendation.

One important note: of all of Waugh's fiction, this is the only book that is not consistently in print. There is a paperback version available now from Loyola Press and I would recommend that if you plan to read it, you get a copy now. There is no telling how long it will remain in print.

Bookmark and Share


Oh, it should be in print for many years under our imprint. At least ten, I think. Am glad you're enjoying it. It's a gem.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 14, 2005 7:40 AM.

My Movie Character was the previous entry in this blog.

Robots is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll