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Getting to Grips with the Gospels: Interpretation and Elaboration in Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893)

Marie Corelli aux prises avec les Évangiles dans Barabbas (1893)
Elizabeth White
p. 206-219


Dans Barabbas (1893), Marie Corelli entreprit de réécrire le récit évangélique de la crucifixion du Christ et de sa résurrection. Ce faisant, elle s’appuya fortement sur le texte du Nouveau Testament, mais s’éloigna aussi de manière significative de cette source. Tout en insistant sur l’importance de la Bible, Corelli remet clairement en question son autorité, et ce, à plusieurs endroits dans le roman. En semant le doute sur la véracité des récits des Évangiles, elle se montre en accord avec certains arguments de la critique biblique. Tout au long du roman, Corelli semble partagée entre une certaine révérence à l’égard de l’histoire biblique et la volonté de tirer parti de la critique biblique, qui offrait notamment la possibilité de considérer certaines parties de la Bible comme des mythes. Dans cet article, j’entends, à partir d’une lecture précise du texte, examiner la thèse que défendit Corelli, à savoir que le Nouveau Testament était son seul matériau source et montrer dans quelle mesure elle s’éloigne des textes évangéliques tout en mettant en lumière les raisons possibles de cet éloignement.

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Texte intégral

  • 1  George Bullock, Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Bestseller, London: Constable & Co Ltd, 194 (...)

1By the time Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy was published in 1893 Marie Corelli was already one of the bestselling women novelists of her time, and her work was increasingly characterised by a concern with issues of spirituality, other worlds and life after death. Barabbas, which was Corelli’s first attempt at dealing with a biblical theme, was an ambitious and controversial text, in which she undertook to retell the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The novel provoked rather mixed reactions. On the one hand it was praised by a number of clergymen, including the Dean of Westminster who, on Easter Sunday, “read from the pulpit of the Abbey [Corelli’s] description of the Resurrection Morn, saying before he did so that he could not find words more beautiful than this passage out of Marie Corelli’s Barabbas1. However, it was also banned by the circulating libraries for having a pernicious influence, and was ridiculed by many critics who felt that Corelli’s romantic treatment of the religious story was in bad taste. In addition, the novel contributed to Corelli’s break from her publisher, George Bentley, who wrote:

  • 2  Quoted in the Prologue to Marie Corelli, The Life Everlasting, London: Methuen & Co, 1911, 23.

I can conscientiously praise the power and feeling you exhibit for your vast subject, and the rush and beauty of the language, and above all I feel that the book is the genuine outcome of a fervent faith all too rare in these days, but—I fear its effect on the public mind2.

2As such criticisms may suggest, Barabbas has much in common with, and appears designed to appeal to the readers of, romantic melodrama and sensation fiction; but its relationship to the Gospel texts is equally important, for although the novel is largely based on the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, Corelli tends to treat her biblical source material in a rather liberal fashion. During the course of this article, I will highlight the ways in which Corelli embellishes and elaborates on the scriptural accounts and consider the extent to which such deviations from her source material may have been influenced by late-Victorian religious debates and attitudes concerning the Bible.

Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy

3When Barabbas opens, the protagonist has been languishing in prison for eighteen months, expecting execution for his crimes. He is a coarse, violent, and yet noble character who is treated rather sympathetically by the narrator from the outset:

  • 3  Marie Corelli, Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy, London: Methuen & Co, 1893, 11.

In his sleep he had unconsciously turned his face upward to what glimmering light there was, and a placid smile smoothed the fierce ruggedness of his features. Slumbering thus, it was possible to imagine what this unkempt and savage-looking creature might have been in boyhood; there was something of grace in his attitude despite his fettered limbs,—there were lines of tenderness about his mouth, the curve of which could be just seen through his rough beard; and there was a certain grave beauty about the broad brow and closed eyelids. Awake, he fully appeared to be what he was, a rebellious and impenitent criminal,—but in that perfect tranquillity of deep repose, he might have passed for a brave man wronged3.

4After this rather poetic introduction, the narrator relates the events which take place as Barabbas is fetched from his cell and brought, with Jesus, before Pontius Pilate. There follows an extended description of the trial (with a particular emphasis placed on the participation of the crowds and the Pharisees), during which Barabbas comes to feel an overwhelming sense of admiration for his fellow prisoner:

  • 4 Barabbas, 49.

Some glimmering idea of the monstrous incongruity between himself and the silent Accused, struck Barabbas forcibly even while he confronted Pilate with all that strange effrontery which is sometimes born of conscious guilt; and the thought crossed his brain that if, in agreement to the public voice he were indeed released, the first use he would make of his liberty would be to persuade the people to mercy on behalf of this kingly-looking Man, whose noble aspect exerted on his dark and tortured soul, a secret, yet potent spell4.

5Following his release and the condemnation of Jesus (which Barabbas, in spite of these worthy sentiments, does little to prevent), Barabbas meets an enigmatic traveller, named Melchior, who provides him with food and clothes, and accompanies him to the crucifixion. There, at the foot of the cross, Barabbas is reunited with Judith, the woman he loves, and learns that she has been conducting an affair with the high priest, Caiaphas.

6As the novel progresses, the narrative oscillates between Barabbas’s attempts to be reunited with Judith, and his attempts to uncover the truth concerning Jesus, which finally result in his being brought face to face with the risen Christ. At the novel’s conclusion Barabbas, having been rearrested on suspicion of attempted murder, dies in prison with a look of utmost peace on his face:

  • 5 Ibid., 459.

[…] Barabbas rested gravely mute. A flash from the prison-lantern showed that a smile was on his face; and that his dark and rugged features were smoothed and tranquillised into an expression of exceeding beauty. There was something grand and impressive in the aspect of his powerful figure lying thus passive in an attitude of such complete repose,—his crossed hands and closed eyes suggested that eternal calm wherein, as in a deep sea, is found the pearl of infinite Knowledge5.

“Adaptation”6 and Invention: Corelli’s key protagonists

  • 6  In her biography of Corelli, Bertha Vyver described Barabbas as a “free adaptation of a scriptural (...)
  • 7  Kent Carr, Miss Marie Corelli, London: Henry J. Drane, 1901, 103.

7As the above brief summary of Barabbas demonstrates, Corelli was characteristically undaunted by the scope of her subject matter, and she set about telling the Gospel story in her own inimitable fashion, indulging in florid description and embellishment of her biblical source material. As a result, at some points in the novel her narrative appears to bear little resemblance to the Gospel texts, yet it is important to note that she herself claimed that the Bible was her sole inspiration. She told her biographer, Kent Carr, that: “While I wrote Barabbas, I set aside all books whatsoever except the New Testament and worked from that and my own thoughts only”7. Such a statement implies an emphatic belief in and a reverence for her source material which contrasts rather starkly with Corelli’s fictional interpretation of the Gospel texts.

  • 8 Barabbas, 441.

8The main protagonists of Corelli’s novel could be considered her most obvious deviations from her source material. Barabbas himself, elevated to heroic status in Corelli’s text, is mentioned only briefly in biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:16, Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, John 18:40), referred to as an insurrectionist, the man who was released at the crowd’s behest while Jesus was sentenced to death. Corelli portrays this famous, but little drawn character, as a fierce and powerful figure, placing great emphasis on his manliness and courage, transforming a minor character from the Gospels into a convincing romantic hero. Such an embellishment inevitably results in the invention of a number of episodes in Barabbas’s life story for which there are no biblical precedents, the most striking of which is Barabbas’s encounter with the risen Christ: “[…] Barabbas staggered back, amazed, blinded, breathless, and smitten with terror; —before him, in silent, royal, radiant beauty stood—the ‘Nazarene’!”8. It is a fairly significant addition to her biblical source material, since very few such appearances are recorded after Christ’s resurrection, and in bestowing this divine favour on Barabbas Corelli effects a rather dramatic rehabilitation of the man whom history remembers as little more than a murderer.

9Corelli’s treatment of Judas is another significant deviation from biblical accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection. In Corelli’s version of events, Judas is not a traitor, but a devoted follower of Christ who is tempted into believing that by betraying Jesus to the priests he will force him to reveal his glory:

  • 9 Ibid., 197-198.

“Therefore I say, report my story faithfully—if thou wilt be just, say this of the dead Judas,—that out of vain-glorious pride and love he did betray his Master,—yea, out of love was born the sin,—love and not treachery!9

10Barabbas and Judas have traditionally been vilified by the Christian churches and yet Corelli treats them with a sympathy which foreshadows her sympathetic treatment of the Devil himself in The Sorrows of Satan. In contrast, she is very scathing in her treatment of the high priest, Caiaphas. In keeping with her biblical source material, Corelli places great emphasis on the part played by Caiaphas and his fellow Pharisees in ensuring Christ’s condemnation. However, as with the characterisation of Barabbas, in her treatment of Caiaphas Corelli moves far beyond the biblical source for this particular individual. For example, Corelli’s Caiaphas is criticised for his lust and adultery, which have no source in the Gospel texts. This embellishment is necessitated, at least in part, by the introduction into the narrative of Judith, the entirely fictitious femme fatale:

  • 10 Ibid., 120.

She was Judith Iscariot,—only daughter of one of the strictest and most respected members of the Pharisaical sect in Jerusalem,—and by birth and breeding she should have been the most sanctimonious and reserved of maidens,—but in her case, nature had outstepped education10.

  • 11 Ibid., 428.

11The creation of such a character (whose origins lie not in Corelli’s biblical source material but in the romance novels with which Barabbas has so much in common) was mocked by a number of Corelli’s contemporary critics, who drew attention to the author’s ignorance in treating “Iscariot” as a surname. However, comical though she may be in some respects, Judith, like Barabbas, performs the important function of enabling Corelli to dramatise some of the novel’s key religious elements. For just as Barabbas comes face to face with the risen Christ, at the moment of her death Judith is also said to have “found the King”11.

12Judith is the only non-biblical character to be given such prominence in the novel and as such she demonstrates a significant amount of invention and embellishment of the stated source text. However, Corelli took similar liberties with “biblical” characters such as the enigmatic Melchior, who is often used by the author as her mouthpiece in the novel. Melchior’s identity remains a mystery for much of the novel (although Corelli gives her readers certain rather strong clues from a very early stage in the narrative), and it is only at the very end of Barabbas that the reader discovers that he was one of the wise men who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem:

  • 12 Ibid., 463.

“The Angel vanished;”—he continued—“And I arose straightway and went, and stayed not on my journey till I came to Bethlehem; there did I lay my crown before the Child of Mary, and swear to Him my faith.12

13Thus, like much of Corelli’s embellishment, this particular character does have a biblical origin (although none of the wise men are named in the Gospel texts). However, in Corelli’s text, Melchior takes on an almost mythical status, demonstrating both an in-depth knowledge and understanding of spiritual matters, and a prescience concerning the future development of the Christian church:

  • 13 Ibid., 209.

“I say the priests have killed the Christ; and the great Murder is not yet finished. For they will kill Him spiritually a million times again ere earth shall fully comprehend the glory of His message. Ay!—through the vista of a thousand coming years and more, I see His silent patient Figure stretched upon the Cross, and ever the priests surround Him, driving in the nails!13

14As this quotation demonstrates, Melchior is repeatedly used in the novel to voice Corelli’s own dislike of priests and her firm belief in the pre-eminence of Christ. As a result, his speeches contribute significantly to Corelli’s portrayal of Christ which is, regardless of the title, the main focus of the novel. It is a portrayal which relies heavily on the Gospel texts, but again, Corelli is unable to limit herself to a simple retelling of the biblical story, and undertakes to provide additional details for her late-Victorian readers. Most notably, she describes Christ’s silence in the face of Pilate’s questioning, but then goes on to provide an example of what Christ might have said, had He spoken:

  • 14 Ibid., 32.

And the voiceless response might have been rendered into words like these,—
“What have I done? I have made Life sweet, and robbed Death of bitterness; there is honour for men and tenderness for women; there is hope for all, Heaven for all, God for all!—and the lesson of Love,—Love divine and human as personified in Me, sanctifies the Earth forever through My Name!14

15Such a passage seems deliberately constructed to convey Corelli’s firm belief in the Gospel teaching concerning the divinity and pre-eminence of Christ. However, it must also be noted that at other points in the novel the representation of Christ, although heavily reliant on the New Testament, places emphasis on certain aspects of Christ’s form and character which might not be considered integral parts of the Gospel story. In particular, although Corelli took great care to illustrate His divinity, like many of the nineteenth-century “biographers of Christ” she also placed considerable emphasis on His humanity:

  • 15 Ibid., 20.

Still as a statue of sunlit marble He stood, erect and calm, His white garments flowing backward from His shoulders in even picturesque folds, thus displaying His bare rounded arms, crossed now on His breast in a restful attitude of resignation, yet in their very inertness suggesting such mighty muscular force as would have befitted a Hercules15.

  • 16  Thomas F.G. Coates & R.S. Warren Bell, Marie Corelli: The Writer and the Woman, London: Hutchinson (...)

16As this idealised description demonstrates, Corelli’s Christ is a supremely impressive man, with an almost superhuman form and a heroic stoicism in the face of death. He embodies, as Coates and Bell observe, “much of the human—the human that is divinely magnetic, almost, if not quite, undefinable, yet not exclusive, not idolatrous, but simply and gently human16. This humanising of her subject perhaps suggests that Corelli was influenced by sources other than her stated biblical one. However, her insistence on the importance of Christ’s example and teachings as the only guide for the true Christian certainly demonstrates a strong adherence to this particular aspect of the New Testament message:

  • 17 Barabbas, 464.

“There will be many forms of faith,—and many human creeds in which there is no touch of the Divine,—keep we to the faithful following of Christ, and in the midst of many bewilderments we shall not wander far astray.17

  • 18  Quoted in Coates and Bell, op. cit., 120-122.

17This is a sentiment which is reiterated throughout her fiction and non-fiction, in which Corelli refers to herself as one of a large “fraternity” whose members do not attend places of public worship and follow only the teachings of Christ as set down in the Gospels18. Such statements demonstrate the great importance which Corelli herself attached to the person and teachings of Christ. However, in Barabbas she reveals a rather more problematic attitude which suggests a tension between her expressed confidence in the teachings of Christ and a lack of confidence in those she held responsible for recording them.

18This lack of confidence manifests itself in a rather critical treatment of the apostle Peter, who famously denied Christ but was later reconciled with him. In biblical teaching, Peter’s denial is contrasted not only with Jesus’s command to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16) but also with the disciple’s earlier acknowledgement of Christ as the Son of God, to which Jesus responded: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). In Corelli’s text, no mention is made of Peter’s repentance and reconciliation with Christ; instead he is made complicit in Judas’s betrayal of Christ, and is condemned for his lack of vision and his inability to understand the divine purpose. Such a condemnation undoubtedly betrays something of Corelli’s own personal prejudices, but it also leads her to question the veracity of the Gospel accounts on which she claims her novel is based:

  • 19 Barabbas, 204.

“Strange that this man should have denied his Master!” he thought with passionate scorn—“And I,—base sinner as I am, having but seen that Master once, would willingly have died for Him had it been possible! If all His followers are of such coward stuff as this, surely the history of this day, if left to them, will be but a perverted chronicle!19

19By expressing such doubts Corelli (almost certainly unintentionally) creates confusion with regard to her own professed belief in the importance of Christ’s teaching. For although the teachings are attributed to Christ, Corelli believes that they were recorded by his disciples. She believes in the absolute truth and divinity of the former, but doubts the reliability and accuracy of the latter, and yet the two cannot be separated.

The Critical Spirit versus the Will to Believe: engaging with biblical criticism20

  • 20  See David Jasper & T.R. Wright (eds.), The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe: Essays in Nine (...)

20Such confusion, which runs throughout Barabbas, marking the novel with a certain amount of ambivalence and inconsistency, positions Corelli’s work within a number of religious debates which were prevalent in the late-Victorian era. In particular, Corelli seems to wrestle in her text with some of the arguments of biblical criticism, struggling to reconcile them with a belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures.

  • 21  Quoted in James R. Moore (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain: III Sources, Manchester: Manchester (...)

21Biblical criticism, which became prominent during the mid-Victorian period, challenged the authority of the Bible by highlighting the variety of ways in which the texts of both the Old and the New Testaments had been translated and altered over the years. In addition, scholars cast doubt on the authorship of certain books in the Bible, and with the publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860, several prominent members of the Anglican Church began to argue that the Bible should be treated like any other text, and subjected to the same level of critical examination. In particular, Benjamin Jowett asserted that under such critical examination “the Bible will still remain unlike any other book; its beauty will be freshly seen, as of a picture which is restored after many ages to its original state”21. Jowett’s essay was particularly controversial at the time, but nearly thirty years later, in a collection of essays entitled Lux Mundi (1889), Charles Gore argued even more provocatively that some parts of the Bible could be described as “myth” rather than historical truth. This, Robin Gilmour claims

  • 22  Robin Gilmour, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, (...)

[…] was the most contentious of Higher Critical terms: that an episode in the Bible could be both fictional (i.e. unsupported by history and science) and true to the existential needs of primitive people, and that this false belief could also be a true embodiment of genuine religious insights, was too much to ask of people who feared that any further surrender of Christianity to history must end in atheism22.

  • 23  Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church: Part II, 2nd edition, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972, 109 (...)
  • 24  Owen Chadwick, op.cit., 113-114.

22Owen Chadwick agrees, claiming that many people were so disturbed by the arguments that they ceased to find comfort in reading their Bibles, feeling that they could no longer know the Bible “by knowing only the Bible”23. Yet Chadwick also goes on to point out that among the more educated laymen there were those who “did not believe every word of the Bible and still confessed themselves to be Christians”24. Corelli herself continued to profess a belief that the teachings of Christ, as set down in the Bible, were the only true guide for the Christian soul, but her treatment of her biblical source material in Barabbas demonstrates an ambivalence towards, and perhaps a partial acceptance of, the arguments of biblical criticism which cast doubt on the authenticity of the Scriptures.

23As a result of these conflicting positions Corelli’s novel is characterised by a certain amount of tension and ambiguity, as she often appears to embrace the opportunities offered by biblical criticism while simultaneously attempting to respond to and challenge that criticism. Such a tension may be demonstrated by a consideration of the “signs and wonders” repeatedly referred to in the novel which, while they may have their origin in the teaching and art of the Christian churches, are certainly not biblical:

  • 25 Barabbas, 332.

Barabbas started back amazed and terror-stricken. For behind her and around her a sudden great light shone,—a fiery halo, radiating to right and left like two glittering wings between which her tranquil and majestic figure held its place in queenly and serene unconsciousness25.

  • 26 Ibid., 25.
  • 27 Ibid., 147.
  • 28 Ibid., 283.

24Descriptions such as this recur throughout the novel: while standing in the judgment hall, Barabbas has a vision of Christ shining forth “with a thousand radiations of lightning-like glory”26; the cross on which Christ is crucified seems, when lit by lightning, “to assume gigantic proportions”27; and Judith witnesses a “cross of light, deep red and dazzling as fire”28 hovering over the body of Judas which, when it has gone, appears to have altered the expression on the face of the dead disciple.

  • 29  It is also worth noting that such “signs and wonders” may have been incorporated for commercial re (...)

25These signs and wonders, which constitute significant embellishments of her biblical source material, might be considered evidence of Corelli’s inclination to exploit the opportunities provided by biblical criticism. But they might also be interpreted as Corelli’s response to those scholars who presumed to know the truth of the Gospels and to explain them to others. Perhaps by foregrounding such obviously supernatural occurrences Corelli was demonstrating that there is much of the divine which is beyond the reach of human comprehension29.

26Corelli’s portrayal of Christ might be said to demonstrate a similar engagement with the arguments of biblical criticism.In the light of the new learning, which cast doubts not only on the accuracy of the Gospel accounts but also on Christ’s divinity, many late-Victorians chose to root their faith not in Christ’s divine character and miracles, but in his human personality and teaching. Corelli combines both these aspects in her portrayal of Christ, perhaps demonstrating a desire to refute the suspicions of biblical criticism, while also providing a Christ-figure who would appeal to those who had been persuaded by such arguments.

27At certain points in the narrative of Barabbas, Corelli appears to be actively attempting to reconcile the arguments of biblical criticism with a belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures. But at other points (such as the stabbing of Caiaphas and Barabbas’s encounter with Christ) sheseems to abandon her concern with literal truth, and to embrace, in the interests of telling a good story, those aspects of biblical criticism which were most suited to her narrative purpose. In these instances it is unlikely that Corelli was concerned, as were the proponents of Higher Criticism, with the complex origins of biblical material. In fact, it is possible to argue that such a treatment was influenced not by religious but by commercial concerns. However, it is also possible that Corelli felt she was undertaking a task similar to that described by Jowett; that she considered the beauty of the Bible story would be freshly revealed by her interpretation of it (undoubtedly, the subsequent use of Corelli’s novel as a sermon text would have confirmed this belief).

  • 30  Marie Corelli, “Lecture on Work”, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Stratford-Upon-Avon (...)

28It is also likely that Corelli felt liberated by the use of the term “myth” with reference to parts of the Bible, for this would have enabled her to justify her own interpretation of those myths. She certainly does not seem to have had any difficulty accepting this particular element of biblical criticism, for in her non-fictional writings she talks openly about the possibility that Genesis might be “read as poetic legend founded on some substratum of actual events”30.

29Clearly Corelli was not intimidated by her source material, either in terms of style (many of her descriptions take the prose of the King James version and expand on it, adding to it in a way which Corelli may have hoped would improve on the original), or, more importantly, in terms of content. For both her language and her presentation of certain key figures demonstrate a desire to embellish for creative effect, and a willingness to subordinate “Gospel truth” to the demands of the narrative. Yet in spite of this, Corelli’s novel repeatedly reinforces the most central parts of the Gospel message: the divinity of Christ, the love of God, and the reality of life after death. However, even these claims, which are stridently asserted throughout the novel, demonstrate an engagement not only with the Gospel message itself but also with the religious debates surrounding its accuracy. For example, each claim concerning the existence of the afterlife is accompanied by an acknowledgement that people will not believe in it without proof. This, according to Michael Wheeler, might constitute a pointed reference to the beliefs of many of Corelli’s contemporaries:

  • 31  Michael Wheeler, Heaven, Hell and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 4.

Some of the radical truth claims in the New Testament concerning the future life, which had always seemed either enigmatic or contradictory, now became questionable in the light of the Higher Criticism of the Bible, which raised new questions about the origin and authenticity of some of the most familiar New Testament stories of healing and raising from the dead31.

30To a certain extent, the increasing interest in spiritualism which was evident at the end of the nineteenth century grew out of a desire to allay this uncertainty, for there were many who pursued spiritualism and psychical research as a means of finding proof of an afterlife, and, for Christian spiritualists in particular, communion with the dead appeared to confirm the biblical message that death had been destroyed. It is perhaps, therefore, not coincidental that Corelli’s retelling of the crucifixion and resurrection stories places particular emphasis on the biblical message of the destruction of death and the promise of life everlasting:

  • 32 Barabbas, 365.

Again the great wind rushed in resonant harp-like chords through heaven,— again the ground rocked and trembled, and again the thunder sounded its deep trump of wakening eloquence! And all the mystic voices of the air seemed whispering the great Truths about to be made manifest;—“Death is dead; Life is Eternal! God is Love!32

31Similarly, Corelli’s insistent belief in God as a loving father-figure, who contrasts rather starkly with the vengeful God believed in by Caiaphas, would have been most welcome to her late-Victorian readers. At the end of the nineteenth century, people of all classes were struggling with the idea of a wrathful, vengeful God who condemned his children to eternal torment in hell. Many had come to disbelieve in hell as being inconsistent with the Christian message of love and forgiveness, yet there were still many questions about God’s true nature and the Bible’s perceived incongruities. Robert Lee Wolff, discussing the different approaches to these concerns in late-Victorian fiction, concludes that:

  • 33  Robert Lee Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, London: John M (...)

The transformation of a vengeful Calvinist God into a loving Broad-Church God, still stern, still paternal, but not condemning any of his children to perpetual hellfire, saved literally tens of thousands of mid- and late-Victorians from depressions that often bordered upon psychopathic despair33.

  • 34  “For she was now no longer Judith Iscariot,—she was a new creature, removed, indefinable and mysti (...)

32Wolff makes no mention of Corelli in his discussions (presumably because she is not a member of the late-Victorian “canon”), regardless of the fact that she was the bestselling author of the 1890s and her fiction invariably dealt with issues of faith and spirituality. Nevertheless it is clear that Corelli, though not a member of any Established Church, was probably conscious of the change in emphasis taking place within the Churches, and was not alone in shifting the focus from the punishments awaiting the wicked to the rewards offered by a loving, caring, father-God. For although she stops short of saying that there is no hell, indicating that there is no way of knowing what Judith’s final fate will be34, each repenting sinner in her novel is blessed with a look of peace in death.

33Ultimately, Corelli’s message in Barabbas is a simple one, and in the telling of it she mingles elements of the biblical narrative with her own personal beliefs and interpretations (as well as some of the key components of popular fiction). Conventional Christian teaching is juxtaposed with more unconventional, quasi-spiritualist beliefs, but she never strays very far from the former. But there is an ambiguity in Corelli’s approach which places her at the centre of several important late-Victorian religious debates. She both relies heavily on the Scriptures whose authority had been called into question by biblical criticism, and makes use of the same criticism in order to be more liberal in her treatment of her biblical source material; she is torn between her distrust of the disciples and her wholehearted belief in the words of Christ which she claims they were responsible for recording; and although she appears to condemn the scepticism created by biblical criticism, many of her deviations from her source material suggest a desire to render her novel more appealing to those who might treat its subject matter sceptically. Her ambivalence towards these central issues reveals a tension in Corelli’s work which undoubtedly reflects the tensions which were being felt by the author herself and by many of her contemporaries in late-Victorian society.

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BULLOCK George, Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Bestseller, London: Constable & Co Ltd, 1940.

CARR Kent, Miss Marie Corelli, London: Henry J. Drane, 1901.

CHADWICK Owen, The Victorian Church: Part II, 2nd ed., London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972.

COATES Thomas F.G. & R.S. WARREN BELL, Marie Corelli: The Writer and the Woman, London: Hutchinson & Co, 1903.

CORELLI Marie, Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy, London: Methuen & Co, 1893.

---, The Life Everlasting, London: Methuen & Co, 1911.

---, “Lecture on Work,” Manuscript held at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

GILMOUR Robin, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, 1993.

JASPER David & T.R. WRIGHT (eds.), The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe: Essays in Nineteenth Century Literature and Religion, London: Macmillan, 1989.

MOORE James R. (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain: III Sources, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

VYVER Bertha, Memoirs of Marie Corelli, London: Alston Rivers Ltd, 1930.

WHEELER Michael, Heaven, Hell and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

WOLFF Robert Lee, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, London: John Murray, 1977.

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1  George Bullock, Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Bestseller, London: Constable & Co Ltd, 1940, 115-116.

2  Quoted in the Prologue to Marie Corelli, The Life Everlasting, London: Methuen & Co, 1911, 23.

3  Marie Corelli, Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy, London: Methuen & Co, 1893, 11.

4 Barabbas, 49.

5 Ibid., 459.

6  In her biography of Corelli, Bertha Vyver described Barabbas as a “free adaptation of a scriptural subject” (Memoirs of Marie Corelli, London: Alston Rivers Ltd, 1930, 117-118).

7  Kent Carr, Miss Marie Corelli, London: Henry J. Drane, 1901, 103.

8 Barabbas, 441.

9 Ibid., 197-198.

10 Ibid., 120.

11 Ibid., 428.

12 Ibid., 463.

13 Ibid., 209.

14 Ibid., 32.

15 Ibid., 20.

16  Thomas F.G. Coates & R.S. Warren Bell, Marie Corelli: The Writer and the Woman, London: Hutchinson & Co, 1903, 147.

17 Barabbas, 464.

18  Quoted in Coates and Bell, op. cit., 120-122.

19 Barabbas, 204.

20  See David Jasper & T.R. Wright (eds.), The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe: Essays in Nineteenth Century Literature and Religion, London: Macmillan, 1989.

21  Quoted in James R. Moore (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain: III Sources, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988, 28.

22  Robin Gilmour, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, 1993, 55.

23  Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church: Part II, 2nd edition, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972, 109. It must be noted that this may have applied to only a limited cross-section of society who read and understood the arguments of biblical criticism. It is also likely that there were many poorly educated members of the churches who remained largely unaware of and untroubled by these developments.

24  Owen Chadwick, op.cit., 113-114.

25 Barabbas, 332.

26 Ibid., 25.

27 Ibid., 147.

28 Ibid., 283.

29  It is also worth noting that such “signs and wonders” may have been incorporated for commercial reasons, since they would have contributed to the sensational atmosphere which was a key component of Corelli’s popular fiction.

30  Marie Corelli, “Lecture on Work”, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Stratford-Upon-Avon, DR 777/20.

31  Michael Wheeler, Heaven, Hell and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 4.

32 Barabbas, 365.

33  Robert Lee Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, London: John Murray, 1977, 323-324.

34  “For she was now no longer Judith Iscariot,—she was a new creature, removed, indefinable and mystic,—a spirit released,—to good or evil, who could say?” (Barabbas,450).

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Elizabeth White, « Getting to Grips with the Gospels: Interpretation and Elaboration in Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893) »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°4 | 2007, 206-219.

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Elizabeth White, « Getting to Grips with the Gospels: Interpretation and Elaboration in Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893) »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. V - n°4 | 2007, mis en ligne le 14 octobre 2009, consulté le 30 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Elizabeth White

(Bristol, Great Britain)
Lizzie White has a BA in English from the University of Oxford, an MA in English from the University of the West of England, and a PhD from the University of Birmingham. Her main area of research interest is the 1890s, with particular focus on the poetry of Lord Alfred Douglas and the fiction of Marie Corelli. She is a lecturer at the University of the West of England.

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