Once, very long ago, before ever the 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 a Latin paraphrase. (p. 3)
Summary: Helena, daughter of old king Coel, that merry old soul, is as practical and prosaic and down-to-earth as one can imagine; her response to the Iliad is that she would like to find the actual ruins of Troy someday. The only thing that usually gets her spirit soaring is horses; although, lately, she has been taking peeks at a Roman soldier, Constantius who is hanging around on some mysterious mission. Marrying Constantius will take her well into the Roman Empire, the decaying, decadent, strife-ridden core of the world, in which the people are slowly drowsing themselves away on the drug-like effects of vague dreams and ungrounded abstractions.
It is an age in which all religion tends Gnostic. But there is one religious group that has not wholly succombed. It's not that they have escaped infection -- they too are whisked away by pseudo-profundities and irresponsible abstractions, both because of the sentiments they generate and because dabbling in these things is the way to be 'educated' and 'intellectual' and 'pious' -- but this religious group has a different answer to the question: When and where did all this religious stuff you keep talking about actually happen? She is quite surprised when they tell her, without hesitation, that it happened in Palestine, under Pontius Pilate. It is enough to catch her interest, and she will eventually, of course, become Christian and set out to find the actual Cross of Christ.
In one sense this is a historical novel and in another sense not. Except for a few scattered licenses, Waugh is careful to fit the main events of his story to the history and, where history is unclear, not to stray too far from the rumors and legends that have come down to us. But the characters are recognizably, and deliberately, modern. Marcias chatters Gnostic emanations, but he does so in a way that shows him to be very much like the modern religious con man; Eusebius of Nicomedia may talk Christian theology but he would make a very good worldly Anglican prelate, capable of entering all the right social circles because he is able to play on the religious tastes of his audience. The Emperor Constantine talks like an upper-class British prig. In a very masterly way, Waugh tells an apparently pious story that is at the same time an almost wickedly gleeful skewering of the modern age, which likes its religion spiritualized into purely symbolic realms and its politics full of cunning schemes for a purely imaginary future, which loves people as long as it can consider them as vague generalities to serve as convenient excuses for its own preferences, which does great evils for airy abstractions and fails to recognize that goodness is the most pragmatic thing in the world.
And against it all is the bulwark of Helena, and a religion that has no point at all unless there was a real death on a real Cross for real forgiveness of real sins of real people.
There was a further pause; then in clear, schoolroom tone, Helena said: "What I should like to know is: when and where did all this happen? And how do you know?"
Minervina frowned. Marcias replied: "These things are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof."
"Then, please, how do you know?"
"By a lifetime of patient and humble study, your Majesty."
"But study of what?"
"That, I fear, would take a lifetime to particularize."
A little murmur of admiration greeted this neat reply and on the crest of it the hostess rose to dismiss the meeting. (pp. 108-109)
Recommendation: There are one or two odd artistic choices, but in a number of ways this is Waugh at his best. Highly Recommended.
Quotations from Evelyn Waugh, Helena, Little, Brown, and Co. (New York: 2012).