OF THE BABY NAME HELEN
Helen (or Helena) is the heroine of Shakespeare’s play, “All’s Well That Ends Well”, believed to have been written around 1605. Helen is an orphaned gentlewoman under the care of the Countess of Rousillon, who is in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram. Alas, Bertram does not return the favor, and declines her attentions. When Helen is able to cure the king’s mysterious illness, he rewards her by giving her any man in the kingdom for her husband. Guess who? Bertram is really out of sorts now, and runs off to war after the wedding. He sends Helen a letter saying that he will never be her true husband unless she can (1) obtain his family ring from his finger and (2) bear his child. These conditions seem impossible, but, this is Shakespeare – never worry. Helen rises to the occasion on both counts by some nice bits of trickery, and wins her reluctant man back. We of modern days might not wish to have so grudging a spouse, and won by such subversive means, but this does not seem to have bothered Helen at all. Give the girl kudos for perseverance! (One little side note – Shakespearean scholars don’t know exactly how to classify this play – tragedy? comedy? – and have hence put it in the category of “problem play”, which speaks volumes.)
The New York Times bestseller “Helen of Troy” by Margaret George (author of Mary, Called Magdalene). With her amazing ability to summon the voices of historical characters, Margaret George in Helen of Troy tells the story of the woman whose face famously “launched a thousand ships”. Laden with doom, yet surprising in its moments of innocence and beauty, this is a beautifully told story of a legendary woman and her times. An exquisite page-turner with a cast of irresistible characters: Odysseus, Hector, Achilles, Priam, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, as well as Helen and Paris themselves, plus a wealth of material that reproduces the Age of Bronze in all its glory. Helen of Troy brings to life a war that we have all learned about but never before experienced.
Helen Burns is the gentle young friend of Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. While Jane herself strives to be good in the face of overwhelming odds, young Helen seems to be to suffering born, to accept her fate and eagerly to await her rewards in another life. Strangely enough, she is not treacly at all, even to our modern senses – she is just pure goodness and innocence, and is much beloved by Jane. Helen, while certainly acknowledging the deplorable conditions at the Lowood School, nonetheless believes that divine reason lies behind all actions, and that we shall be compensated or punished in the after-life. Naturally, she dies a death of consumption at a young age, and, like Jane, we hope with all our hearts that she is right about her beliefs. Helen was most beautifully rendered by a very young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1943 film version.
Helen is the famed most beautiful woman of all in mythology, as described by Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, dated around the 8th century B.C., and by Euripides in his play, Helen, first performed around 412 B.C. Helen is thought to have been the result of the union between the god Zeus and the mortal Leda, who transformed herself into a swan. While still a young girl, Helen is kidnapped by Theseus, but later is rescued by her brothers. After entertaining scores of suitors, Helen becomes the wife of Menelaus (king) of Sparta, but of course her story doesn’t end there. The Trojan, Paris, when called upon to decide who amongst the goddesses is the most beautiful, chooses Aphrodite, due to her bribe of rewarding him with Helen. Helen and Paris fall in love while Menelaus is conveniently away for a family funeral, and they elope to Troy (never mind that the bride-to-be is already married). Helen is adored in Troy, and the Trojans stave off the avenging Greeks for the duration of a ten year war. The Greeks prevail, of course, by coming up with that marvelous Trojan horse, win the day, and bring Helen back with them to Greece. Legend has it that Helen and Menelaus live happily into old age together, against all odds. At least that is the story most often told, and it doesn’t bode too well for the character of Helen. She seems to be a plaything of gods and men, going where the winds blow strongest, and causing havoc - all for the moniker of “… the face that launched a thousand ships”, as well as an ongoing immortal reputation. Would you go there?
Helen is the younger sister in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel of Edwardian society mores, “Howards End”. Helen is a beautiful, wealthy and impulsive young woman with plenty of time on her hands to enjoy upper class life and to interfere in other peoples’ lives. As a privileged member of society, Helen thinks nothing of trying to “help” those less fortunate. This she does with catastrophic results, albeit unintentionally. When she meddles in the unfortunate Leonard Bast’s life, she causes him to lose his livelihood, to endure public humiliation along with his wife, to enter into an adulterous relationship with herself, and ultimately, to die well before his time. And yet…believe it or not, we see her as well-meaning and kind, if perhaps just a little bit too self-absorbed. At Howards End’s end. Helen has given birth to Leonard’s child and has been considerably sobered by her experiences. She looks forward to a newly charged life in a newly positioned England, and we wish her well. (In the 1992 film version, Helena Bonham-Carter plays her to perfection.)
Edgar Allen Poe wrote two different poems titled “To Helen”; the first was in 1831 (later revised in 1845) and the second was written in 1848. The first “Helen” poem was in homage to the mother of a childhood friend and celebrated the beauty and nurturing power of women. It reads in part: “On desperate seas long wont to roam, / Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, / Thy Naiad airs have brought me home / To the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” Poe’s second Helen poem was written for a love interest of his named Sarah Helen Whitman and recounts the first time he laid eyes on her strolling under the moonlight. In the poem the garden roses where she walked smiled and were “enchanted by thee, and by the poetry by thy presence” When the moon finally “sank from sight” Poe goes on about Helen’s eyes: “Only thine eyes remained; / They would not go – they never yet have gone; / Lighting my lonely pathway home that night, / They have not left me (as my hopes have) since; / They follow me- they lead me through the years.”