THE GOSPEL OF SAINT EVELYN
In 1949 Waugh resumed a project he'd started in 1945. Well, no, it was when visiting Jerusalem in 1935 that he first got the idea of writing a life of Helena - who in 326 AD travelled to Jerusalem and found the cross on which Christ was crucified. But it wasn't until ten years after his initial enthusiasm for the project that Evelyn Waugh actually got down to the writing of his historical novel.
Much painstaking research was needed (not Evelyn's forté) and so the book progressed slowly. It was the opening three chapters, which he referred to as book one of three, that Waugh wrote in 1945/46. Here is a picture of Evelyn engaged in the writing in his library at Piers Court while his wife, Laura, oversees domestic arrangements.
Saint Matthew. From a MS of the 7th Century known as the Durham Book. British Museum.
Actually, it's an image from Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. One of 25 books illustrated by Owen Jones, a master of colour lithography in the Victorian era, that were in Waugh's library at his death. Evelyn Waugh the historian and aesthete - the monk scribe - is just as true as Evelyn Waugh, champagne quaffer, Cyril Connolly tormentor, wife-bamboozling husband and child-teasing father.
The section written in 1945 and early '46 introduces the reader to Helena, daughter of a British King living in Colchester. Britain was part of the Roman Empire at the time, and a high-born Roman soldier, Constantius, who was passing through, meets and (within a page or two) marries Helena. They then travel to NIsh where Constantius comes from, during which journey Helena realises she has married an ambitious, ruthless man. In letters, Waugh liked to say he was writing about the sexual fantasies of a young Penelope Betjeman, but actually the writing does not seem fully engaged, as Waugh's writing seldom does unless he was writing about 'himself' and his own experiences.
Actually, Waugh was on a mission in Yugoslavia in early 1945 and Nish (or Nis as it's now known) was the site of the first Nazi concentration camp to be set up in Yugoslavia. In October 1944, the German army was defeated and Nis was liberated by the Red Army and Partisans. The politics of this was of great interest to Waugh, especially the fate of Roman Catholics in Yugoslavia. I don't think his experiences there have directly fed into the writing of the relevant part of Helena, but I'm keeping an open mind on this until I've researched the war years.
I'm enclosing the map below which is from the Middle Ages, the time of the Crusades, as it shows the location of Nish, north of Greece. It also shows Ratisbon, where Constantius leaves Helena for a few weeks in order to take command of the slaughter of some Gauls who have been betrayed by their leader.
Perhaps the map below is a more relevant one, showing the extent of the Roman Empire back in the time (give or take a century) of Helena and Constantius. Emperor of Rome is what Constantius aspired to be. But a journey to Jerusalem was to be Helena's destiny.
Why did Evelyn abandon Helena in 1946? Well, the writing required a lot of research and perhaps Waugh's jaw needed a rest from all the yawning. Indeed, it was in spring of 1946 when he embarked on his champagne book for Sacconne and Speed. Quite right, Evelyn: you can't be expected to live like a monk for months on end. Give yourself a five-year break, for goodness sake!
After the egotism and misanthropy of his American trips (there were a couple more of these following the Brideshead/Loved One Hollywood expedition of 1947), perhaps Waugh felt the need to get back in touch with the holy (non-Hollywood) side of his nature. Here is another picture of Evelyn at Piers Court, back in monk mode, sending chapters off to A.D. Peters, his loyal literary agent:
Miniature of Saint Matthew. From the Coronation Book of the Anglo-saxon Kings of England, British Museum.
Again the image is from The Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. There is much writing to the left of the illumination, all of it in Latin. Evelyn was extremely aware of the historical importance of Latin, Rome, the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. After the Reformation in England and the destruction of the monasteries and their libraries, such books were either destroyed or dispersed. This Coronation Book of the Anglo-Saxon Kings found its way to a collector, Sir Robert Cotton, then to the British Library, where it was reproduced through colour lithography by Owen Jones, and so - in all likelyhood via Nancy Mitford's Heywood's Hill bookshop in London - to Evelyn Waugh's library at Piers Court.
In my mind's eye, Evelyn used his own illuminated books to motivate him towards getting back into Helena. Alas, the writing did not go smoothly. He wasn't keeping a diary in this period, but there are many mentions in letters, especially to A.D. Peters: 'I wish I could tell you that Helena progresses' (Letter 20 July 1949) and 'I write a sentence a week on the Empress Helena' (Letter 14 September 1949).
Waugh, although himself very satisfied with the book, anticipated its failure with the public: '...Helena...is to be my masterpiece. No one will like it at all' (Letter 9 November 1949); and several weeks later he wrote: 'My Helena is a great masterpiece. How it will flop' (Letter 16 November 1949). In the beginning of March 1950 the book was finally finished: 'I have now written the last word of Helena and am quite out of work' (Letter 9 March 1950).
What happens in the final two-thirds of the book?
Helena and Constantius have a child, Constantine. But C. senior has a setback in his career when things go wrong during a visit to Rome. When C. junior is three, the family move to Government House on the coast of Dalmatia. Cue a map which could almost be a schematic representation of Waugh's cruise in the Stella Polaris back in 1929:
Did the He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn stop in the territory that had once been Dalmatia? Yes, the 16th and 17th ports of call were Ragusa and Cattaro. In Labels, Waugh shows off his knowledge of those places' history. Knowledge which he would have subsequently supplemented in his visit to Yugoslavia in 1944/45 and in his 1946/49 research for this part of Helena's life.
OK, back to the chase. Constantius governs Dalmatia quietly while Roman emperors come and go. But eventually the politics works out in his favour and he is promoted to one of two caesars who will inherit the position of the Eastern and Western emperor in due course. But to take up this position, he has to divorce Helena and remarry, and he has to send Constantine, who is a teenager, to be politically educated in Nicomedia.
Helena then lives alone for thirteen years. Constantius reigns peacefully in Gaul. Constantine gets married and has a son. He turns up after thirteen years and wants to take his mother to her ex-husband's domain as the empire is in turmoil. C junior (now in his mid-twenties) talks about the problem of the Christians in particular. From which point in the book Christianity gradually becomes the major theme.
Constantine becomes a Christian, but his is a self-serving and superstitious belief. He becomes a very successful emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Helena is past seventy when Constantine invites her to his jubilee celebrations in Rome. So Helena finally gets to see Rome. At close quarters she observes the political machinations at court.
There is a scene in the chapter called Constantine's Great Treat where the emperor interviews some of the officials responsible for building his triumphal arch. He is not happy with the work and in particular with the 'decorative applications'. It is defended by the relevant craftsman as follows:
"The arch, as conceived by my friend Professor Emolphus here, is, as you see, on traditional lines, modified to suit modern convention. It is, you might say, a broad mass broken by apertures."
This brings to mind the grotto that Evelyn commissioned from Midlands Gardens for his country house in spring of 1949. Here is a poor photocopy (I'll substitute a good scan when I get the opportunity) of a picture of what it looked like in the grounds of Piers Court close to the south-east corner of the house. The photo was taken in July, 1949, when a Country Life photographer stayed for a week.
In chapter eight of Helena, the sculptor Carpicius goes on defending the arch made for Constantine, and in particular its decorative appendages:
"Now this mass involves certain surfaces which Professor Emolphus conceived had about them a certain monotony. The eye was not held, if you understand me."
Below is the emperor, Evelyn, standing in front of his Edifice (you can just see the three-leafed window feature in the middle of the highest part of the wall in the above image). He does not seem too happy. This is definitely not Evelyn in humble monk mode, though the circular window serves as a halo of sorts.
Let the Emperor Constantine speak for imperious Evelyn Waugh:
"There is no grace or movement in the whole thing. I've seen better work done by savages."
We don't know if Evelyn addressed a representative of Midlands Gardens in this way. But we know that he wrote to Nancy Mitford in April 1949, telling her that his Gothic fernery, underway at great cost, was a fiasco, and that it looked like Lancing College War memorial circa 1914-1918.
Constantine goes on to say that what he had in mind for his arch was something like the arch of Trajan. Which today, in looking as shown below, connects the present with the Fourth Century AD, when Constantine was having his audience, indeed to the Second century AD, when the arch was built to celebrate the emperor Trajan:
In the erudite pages of Helena, Constantine asks if his master craftsmen can produce something similar. They suggest they could manage a pastiche. Constantine doesn't want a fucking pastiche (pardon my Latin). "Can you do it?" he demands. The answer is no. So Constantine gives the order for the carvings to be pulled off the arch of Trajan and stuck on his own arch. I suppose, in the issuing of that order, the emperor is betraying both his egotism and his philistinism. More exactly, in the issuing of that order, Evelyn is making clear his disdain for Constantine, one time ruler of the civilised world.
Egged on by his second wife, Constantine arranges for his own son, amongst others, to be murdered. But in implying the guilt of Helena, it's his wife that goes too far and gets it in the neck. How to kill your wife in the days of the Roman Empire? Lock the door while she is in the hot dry room. Constantine's Great Treat ends with the sentence. 'She slid and foundered and presently lay still, like a fish on a slab.'
It's in the next chapter that Constantine reveals his own Christianity to be specious. The Christian relic he counts as special, Helena mocks as being all too obviously not what its cut out to be. Constantine then leaves Rome, intent on establishing a new centre of the Empire.
It's the last three chapters when the book really gets going. If the bulk of the novel is a romanticised version of history, the rest is a sort of visionary archaeology. The bishop in Jerusalem, Macarius, meets Constantine at the first international Christian assembly, in Nicaea. The bishop tells the emperor all about Jerusalem, a description that ends with the holiest of holy places, the sepulchre itself.
Constantine (and the reader) learn that the Emperor Hadrian built a temple of Venus on the cave where Christ's dead body had been laid. Constantine gives the order that the site be excavated. The bishop returns to Jerusalem and the work starts. And that's when the reader (this reader, anyway) learns that the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection lie very close to each other. On top of one small hill, Christ was crucified. Thirty yards away, half-way up another hill, was his tomb.
Diagram courtesy of Galyn Weimers' website.
The bishop writes to the emperor describing progress on site. Constantine writes back full of enthusiasm, declaring that the finest church in the world should be built there. So the architect Dracilianus turns up and his plan is to level things off at a lower level than Hadrian had done, in fact at the level of the sepulchre.
Diagram courtesy of Galyn Weimers' website.
The hill in which the sepulchre stood was to be cut away (the shaded area to the left in the above diagram), leaving only a thin geometrically regular mass of stone round the grave-cave itself which would then appear like a tiny house. The hill of Calvary was to be trimmed to a cube. In other words, the architect Dracilianus puts us in mind of of Otto Silenus, the architect in Decline and Fall who took the 300 year-old English house, KIng's Thursday, demolished it and erected a glass and concrete cube in its place.
The basilica-style church was to contain neither of the holy places but to stand in a great, colonnaded yard five hundred feet long. To the east, a separate, semi-circular building was to enclose the tomb. All this is indicated in the diagram below which, like the two above, is taken from the website of Galyn Weimers.
Diagram courtesy of Galyn Weimers' website.
In chapter ten of Helena, 'The Innocence of Bishop Macarius', much of which is written from this bishop's perspective, we get a clear picture of the architecture and archaeology. He concludes by talking about 'two incongruous protuberances, a sort of hut and an empty pedestal' which refer to the grave and Calvary. It's tempting to link Constantine's work with Evelyn's in the garden of Piers Court. As well as the Gothic Edifice, Waugh commissioned what he referred to at The Ruin and which could easily be described as 'an empty pedestal'. Here it is:
The Gothic Edifice is also at this eastern side of the house, but round the back, south, rather than north east of the front door which is where the pillared pedestal stands. In a letter to Nancy Mitford written in July 1949, three months after writing to her about the Gothic Edifice, and while he was working again on Helena, he tells her that he's just received a bill from his garden contractors who have charged him a thousand pounds for laying some gravel and putting up a pillar. If it (the 'Ruin') succeeded in providing him with an imaginative link to Jerusalem, I'd say it would have come cheap at double the price.
Evelyn very much wanted there to be a link between his own piece of England and Jerusalem. In a letter he wrote to his Catholic chum Katharine Asquith on December 28, 1935, when he was staying at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, he talked of his visit to the Holy Sepulchre. He said he felt obliged to write a history of England and the Holy Places. He listed St Helena, Baldwin I, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe and General Gordon as the English individuals he had in mind. Evelyn was, it's true to say, an idiosyncratic combination of Roman Catholic and English nationalist.
But I suppose it's even truer to say that Evelyn Waugh wanted Piers Court, through its Victorian paintings, its books old and new, its garden follies, to link back to Athens and Rome as well as Jerusalem. In fact - and being fair to Evelyn's ambitions - to the whole of Western civilisation.
Back to Helena. And time for its protagonist to actually do something, having spent her life being done to and simply observing. A year after the bishop's meeting with Constantine, Helena decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the intention of finding the true cross. She reasoned that it was only three hundred years since the crucifixion and that wood doesn't melt like snow. (Good point: it must be worth us having a look for Shakespeare's first and second best beds, though they'd now be four hundred years old.)
Nicomedia was Helena's starting point, from where she travelled to Drepanum, Ancrya, Tarsus, Antioch and Lydda. The map below helps get these movements into perspective. Dalmatia (roughly Yugoslavia) where Helena lived much of her life is top left. NIcomedia, from where she set out on her pilgrimage, is marked, close to Constantinople, top centre of the map. Ancrya is in the middle of Galatia (Asia Minor). Antioch is pointed at by the tip of Cyprus. And Lydda is just to the north of Jerusalem, which nestles right at the bottom of the map.
Helena set out in the autumn of 326 AD, probably in her late seventies. When she arrived at Jerusalem she started to go about her task. Well, first she arranged for basilicas to go up at Bethlehem (six miles from Jerusalem) and Jerusalem itself. The job of finding the true cross on what was by now - thanks to Constantine's orders - a massive building site, did not phase Helena. It was bound to be in a cave or a basement somewhere.
At Christmas she was't well but she managed to ride out to Bethlehem on Twelfth Night and to pay tribute to the three wise men in her prayers (according to Evelyn, who lets his prose empurple at this point).
By Easter, having taken part in eight five-day weeks of fasting, Helena was very weak indeed. In a dream on Good Friday, the Wandering Jew comes to Helena and tells her where the cross was put after the crucifixion - in a big cellar down some steps. When she awakes, she finds the spot by reference to the two fixed points, the tomb and the summit of Golgotha. Helena then marks the spot and the digging begins.
Towards the end of April, the search party finds a large ruinous reservoir. Once its clear of rubble, there is no sign of large pieces of wood. But Helena indicates a blocked up doorway and when that is cleared and the room beyond searched, the verticals and cross-beams of three crosses are found. There are also four nails and a noticeboard, half of which is attached to one of the vertical pieces of wood. So that, Helena decides, must be half of the true cross. The other half is found by presenting the three cross-beams to an ill person who revives only when the third is put beside her.
So Helena has done it. She has completed the task she was put on earth for. And having divided her finds between herself and the bishop, she sails away joyfully.
Where does that leave us 1700 years later, plus or minus a few decades?
Well, the finishing of his book left Evelyn keen to travel again to the Holy Land. In January 1951 he did so, accompanied by his future biographer, Christopher Sykes. Out of their trip came an article The Defence of the Holy Places, which focuses on Jerusalem. This was first published in the magazines Life and Month and appears in the massive and essential tome Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher, where I came across it.
'The first impression, as one enters the courtyard is that one has come inopportunely.'
Waugh goes on to explain why damage done in 1927 to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has not been repaired. But subsequent to Waugh's second trip the various authorities did manage to get their act together and make good the church. This is what greets the visitor today as he/she enters the courtyard:
Photograph courtesy of Galyn Weimers' website.
Below is a recent photograph of the church interior, basically as it was in Waugh's time. He mentions the incongruity of such a site with the hymn: 'There is a green hill far away'. And cites that a little girl remarked at Calvary: 'I never knew our Lord was crucified indoors.' Yes, the impression given by the church is that Jesus was executed indoors and buried in the same fabulous building.
Photograph courtesy of Galyn Weimers' website.
Waugh ends his piece by describing the gate of the church closing to the public at night and how the various religious groups become active in the early hours of the morning. The Greek mass is first, followed by the Armenian. After that the Franciscans do their thing. At 4.30am, after the building has been opened for the day, a Catholic mass is said in the Sepulchre (there is room only for priest and his assistant in the inner chamber), followed by other RC masses in various parts of the building including Calvary. This is set out in reverential tone and vivid imagery by Waugh.
In 1952, Evelyn made efforts to ensure that the article come out as a book in itself, with illustrations by Reynolds Stone, a protégé of John Betjeman. Helena's discovery of the cross is the subject of the cover illustration. Waugh must still have been thinking of his historical novel, as Helena herself is not mentioned in the main text of The Holy Places.
In a letter to Nancy Mitford of February 1953, Waugh describes the wood engravings with the words 'dull as be damned'. But that spring he nevertheless commissioned Stone to design a letterhead for him. So the man who Evelyn commissioned to make images of Jerusalem in a book is the same he tasked to render his own house and garden on writing paper in this way:
It seems the photograph (six images up) of the Ruin built in 1949 at Piers Court was what the engraver worked on, without doubt at Waugh's direction. I think of Waugh going out to Jerusalem, first, in 1935; second, imaginatively, as Helena in 1949; and third in 1951. And I see him, gradually, piece by piece, literally and metaphorically - but in an obscure way that he was determined not to be overtly interpreted - bringing back the crucifixion and the resurrection to Piers Court.
Here's Evelyn walking up the stairs towards his Gothic Edifice a year or two after its erection. At some point, when there were six spikes along the top of the colonnade, a visiting American asked what they were for. Waugh replied that he was planning to put skulls up there and had advertised for such in Country Life, Tablet and The Times. A deliberately obfuscating answer? It looks to me that it's saints, or monks, or other such revered figures that Evelyn actually erected.
Perhaps that's Saint Helena in the middle of the row of figures in the above photo.
In any case the saints are gone today. Or at least the statues were gone from the Gothic Edifice when Kate and I paid a visit visit to Piers Court in January, 2006 AD. (That's 103 AE.)
In a dream, Helena comes to me. No, in my dream the Wandering Saint comes to Evelyn. What has she to say? Well, let's listen:
Helena: "You have done what only the saints succeed in doing; what indeed constitutes their patent of sanctity. You have completely conformed to the will of God. I, in my time, gathered wood. That was the particular humble purpose for which I was created. Your task was to write down my story, from the time of my youth to the time I fulfilled my destiny... By the way, can you guess what I've got in my pockets?"
Evelyn: "No, I can't. What have you got in your pockets?"
Helena: "Four nails from the true cross."
Evelyn: "But you gave those to your son, Constantine."
Helena: "Yes, and what did he do with them? Clue: you told us about three of them in your book."
Evelyn: "Your poor deluded boy was building a huge monument to himself. On the summit of a column of unprecedented height he erected a colossal bronze Apollo of Pheidias which he had imported from Athens. He decapitated the statue and replaced it with a resemblance of himself. And to help achieve a halo effect, he set one of the holy nails to look like a ray shining from the imperial cranium."
Helena: "And the other nails?"
Evelyn: "The second, Constantine stuck in his hat, and the third, he sent to the blacksmith to have it made into a snafflle for his horse."
Helena: "The nails I have in my pockets are soon to be yours. What will you do with them?"
Evelyn: "I will use one to try and fix the cistern in the upstairs toilet at Piers Court. In which case I will be able to dispense with the sign that says: 'Should the handle fail to return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases, please agitate it slightly until it succeeds.'"
Helena: "And the others?"
Evelyn: "The second, I will stick in your beret, to signal my admiration for it. And the third, I will stick in the middle of my forehead... I'm not worthy, you see. I attempted to give up drinking for Lent, but on the first evening, I felt so dizzy at 8.30pm that I had to forego my abstinence. I am in no way worthy of God's favour."
Helena: "Nonsense! You are a saint, Evelyn. Don't you recall how generous you were to Catholic causes while writing the last part of Helena?"
Evelyn: "Remind me."
Helena: "In the middle of December, 1949, you sent Peters the manuscript of Helena up to the end of part two. You told him that you hoped to write the Jerusalem section before Easter. Perhaps you thought that giving money to good causes would help you achieve that goal. What matters is that, first, you gave £500 to the Jesuits for Xmas. Then you directed that the Japanese translation rights to Brideshead be given to Japanese Catholic charities. Then you asked that some Swiss francs that were due you be paid to a Swedish bishop who had sent you a particularly ugly Christmas card. Then you gave the Penguin rights of Vile Bodies to the Jesuits. Then you agreed to let the Copenhagen magazine Catholica publish 'The American Epoch in the Catholic Church' without fee. Then you arranged for the Swedish bishop who had sent you that particularly ugly Christmas card to receive funds from the Swedish rights to Scoop. Then you directed that the fee for German publication of 'The American Epoch in the Catholic Church' be given to German Catholic charities. And when you sent Peters the finished manuscript on 15 March, 1950, well before Easter of that year, you directed that the Catholic periodical The Month be allowed to print excerpts before the book itself was published by Chapman and Hall, and that they could do so without paying a fee."
Evelyn: "That Easter I intrigued to get a private chapel built at Piers Court by going behind the back of the Bishop of Clifton who hated private chapels as undemocratic and old-fashioned. In behaving in such a selfish way I showed myself yet again to be unworthy of God's favour."
Helena: "Bosh. Let me put it this way, St. Evelyn Waugh. Above all the babble of your age and mine, you made one blunt assertion. The same blunt assertion I made. And there alone lies Hope."
I'm so glad that Kate and I made that trip to Piers Court in 2006. The Ruin that Reynolds Stone had turned into a letterhead was gone by then, but the Gothic Edifice was still in place. Good luck to the biographer who tries to find it three-hundred years downriver from now.
Or, as a messiah-like David Bowie put it on his album Aladdin Sane which was released in 1973 - when he was 26, I was 16, and Evelyn Waugh had been dead for seven years:
"Time. She flexes like a whore.
Falls wanking to the floor.
Her trick is you and me, boy."
That's the David Bowie who includes Vile Bodies in his list of 100 favourite books. You see Evelyn is not dead at all. The likes of Penguin - and soon Oxford University Press - are seeing to that.
Still looking for skulls to place on holy spikes atop your Gothic Edifice, immortal Evelyn? I can picture a couple that would fit nicely when the time comes: Dave's and mine.