There might be two reasons why Evelyn Waugh decided to choose Saint Helena as a literary subject: first, the British connection (some people think that Constantine's mother had been born in Britannia); second, the Christian dimension of this historical figure. I was not especially attracted by either reason, and I postponed reading this book until I found my own reasons for doing so. Evelyn Waugh, by the way, is a writer that I particularly admire, especially as the author of Brideshead Revisited (1945). One of the main themes in Waugh's career as a writer was religion, especially since he became a Roman catholic in 1930. This can be seen in Helena, for obvious reasons, but also in Brideshead Revisited and other novels.
Now, what do I think of Helena? I decided to read it mainly because of its connection with a historical period I have been interested in lately: the Tetrarchy and its aftermath. Helena was the mother of Constantine, and Constantine can be considered the real epitome of those turbulent years. In the first chapters, Waugh's fluent and vivid prose manages to unfold a series of events and characters that would have required lengthy volumes in the hands of other writers. The main achievement of this novel is the fact that it is written by a marvellous, unique author. Towards the end, however, the story becomes more predictable: instead of characters' confrontations or the resolution of conflicts, we are left with Helena's solitary quest for religious meanings, and relics. Rather than a major literary work, what we have here is a minor literary exercise. But Waugh's prose and literary talent are there, which makes it, somehow, a minor masterpiece, if that's possible. On the other hand, the historical facts are quite accurate in general, showing Waugh's erudition and efforts in documentation, which is always required in a historical novel. So yes, a little masterpiece in the field of historical novels.