Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu

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Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Abdul Karim, the controversial Indian attendant to Queen Victoria during the last fourteen years of his life, and account of his relations with the rest of the royal family and household.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2011
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978-0752458533

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Abdul Karim was a 24-year-old assistant clerk at Agra Jail when he was granted the opportunity of a lifetime – to leave India, travel to England and find employment as personal attendant to the great Empress herself, Queen Victoria. Within a year of her employing him and his introducing her to the delights of curry, she promoted him. He would no longer be a mere servant, and henceforth he was now her teacher and clerk, or Munshi, with responsibility for instructing her in Indian affairs and the Urdu language. To the dismay and ill-concealed anger of nearly all her family and household, he suddenly became one of the most conspicuous figures in the royal entourage.

The Queen's obstinacy was both a strength and a weakness. Only a few years earlier she had been devoted to another controversial attendant, the hard-drinking yet equally faithful Highlander John Brown, whose blunt speaking and refusal to tug the forelock had made him several enemies. Yet she had stood by him, fiercely defending him against those around her who found him insufferable and refused to treat him with the respect which she demanded for him. On his death in 1883 she had been almost inconsolable.

Four years later, she became equally attached to and passionately defensive of another servant. If her children and staff had resented Brown, they loathed Abdul Karim with a vengeance. They found him haughty, overbearing, obsessed with getting his name and picture into the papers at home and abroad, and worst of all, shifty, one charge they could never lay against the basically honest Scotsman. The more they tried to ignore or brief against him, the more bitterly she defended him. We can see a parallel here with her granddaughter Alix, Empress of Russia, and her defiant championship of Rasputin some twenty years later. Queen Victoria was well ahead of her time when it came to a total lack of racial prejudice, a characteristic shared by few of those with whom she regularly came into contact – even her private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby, usually regarded as very liberal. Although frequently tolerant of other people's little foibles, he thought Karim was like a sort of pet, like a dog or cat which the Queen will not willingly give up.

That the Munshi took advantage of his favoured position, there could be little doubt. One day a brooch belonging to her was found to be missing, and about a month later it was discovered to have been sold to a jeweller in Windsor. Abdul Karim's involvement in its disappearance was proved beyond question, but the Queen was furious with those who pointed the matter out to her, while managing to find excuses for him. Later when he went to Italy with her, he arranged for a large framed montage with nine cabinet photographs of her flanking a large one of him in the centre to be used as a window display in one of the most prominent shops in Florence. Once crowds began to gather and look at this picture of the Principe Indiano with whom the Queen was said to be in love, the royal household made arrangements with the vice-consul to have it removed.

These, and other incidents, convinced her doctor, Sir James Reid, among others, that Her Majesty was off her head. He was frequently called upon to act as a go-between by the household, laying their grievances about the Munshi's arrogance and misbehavior, and became the butt of her anger as a result. Only occasionally did she admit in a roundabout way that she might have been at fault.

With her death in January 1901 went his privileged status and security. Ironically he was allowed the honour by the new sovereign, King Edward VII, of being the last person to see his late royal protector in her coffin before it was sealed, but only because nobody else would stay in the same room as him longer than necessary. Only a few days later he and his family were woken early in the morning, ordered to surrender any letters and photos from her which they were keeping as souvenirs – which were then put onto a bonfire – and sent back to India, with nothing but their memories.

The author, born in Calcutta and for some years the London-based correspondent of two Calcutta newspapers, is well placed to tell the full story objectively from both points of view. She give us a very balanced portrait of the relationship, showing that there were errors made on both sides. Whether Abdul Karim was badly treated after the Queen's death, or whether the British establishment were right to deal firmly with a man whom they felt they could not trust not to have a time bomb in the letters from her which he had kept, she wisely lets the reader judge. All the material was destroyed, amid suspicion that it may have contained potentially compromising evidence. Yet she has still made use of some valuable material in the Royal Archives and elsewhere, in addition to visiting Agra and following in his footsteps, to explore an interesting facet of life at the Victorian court which has never been told in this detail before.

For further reading, the Queen's relationship with the Munshi, Brown and others is explored in Sons, Servants and Statesmen: The Men in Queen Victoria's Life by John Van der Kiste. The life of a less controversial figure at court is told in a biography of one of her equerries, The Queen's Knight by Martyn Downer; while The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison is an account of one of the members of her family who also played a leading role in the Queen's life at the same time.

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