Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant
By Shrabani Basu
336 pages, $16 paper
Stephen Frears' film of this book starring Dame Judi Dench is scheduled for release late September.
First, some background on Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901). The reason for beginning this way, rather than telling the Victoria Abdul story right off, is that Abdul, one of Victoria’s closest confidants, doesn’t enter the picture until very late in her reign, 1887. Abdul came into the Court as a servant when the Queen was in her late 60s. Victoria reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until her death. From 1876 on, she adopted the additional title of Empress of India. Her father was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, and her German-born mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburgh-Sallfeld.
Victoria became queen at age 18. She had little direct power in the constitutional monarchy, but privately attempted to influence government policy and appointments. She represented strict standards of personal morality.
The Queen married her first cousin (she proposed to him), Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in 1840. They had nine children who married into royal and noble families across Europe. Avoiding a number of assassinations attempts along with the queen, Albert died relatively young of typhoid in 1861. His big triumph: The Grand Exhibition and the Crystal Palace in 1851. Some say it was Albert who discharged the duties of Sovereign.
Victoria took to deep mourning and avoided public appearances for 10 years. Her reign of 63 years and seven months is known as the Victorian era and was longer than any of her predecessors.
It was a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change in the United Kingdom, and marked by a great expansion of the British Empire. She was the last British monarch of the House of Hanover. Her son and successor, Edward VII, inaugurated the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the line of his father.
Years after Prince Albert died, the Queen began a close relationship with another devoted personal servant, John Brown (1826 – 1883). He was a personal attendant of Victoria for years and admired for his competence and companionship, and resented by others for his influence and informal manner. The exact nature of his relationship was the subject of great speculation by contemporaries and continues to be so today. At the time, she was so close to her former Balmoral guide that she was nicknamed, "Mrs Brown." Keep in mind that Victoria, who always had a deep love for India, became Empress of India in 1877.
The author of “Victoria & Abdul,”,Shrabani Basu, was born in Kolkata and grew up in Dhaka, Kathmandu, and Delhi before moving to London where she now lives. She writes for The Telegraph and is the author of a number of books including “For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914 – 1918”, 2016. Her writing is clear and direct, her research excellent – she had access to documents, letters and other materials not earlier seen - and her writing is textually compelling from the first page forward.
Abdul Karim (1863 – 1909), Queen Victoria’s Munshi, i.e., a teacher and counselor, was a handsome fellow who looked like royalty himself.
Abdul was one of two Indians chosen to be servants of the queen, and he was part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration sent from India. Victoria enjoyed showing off her Indians to European nobles, and Abdul was no slouch. What did the Munshi do that was so endearing?
He rose quickly from a servant waiting at the Queen’s table. Within months we are told, he was cooking the Queen curries, and, soon after, became her teacher or Munshi. Karim eventually became the Queen’s highly decorated Indian secretary and the monarch’s closest confidant. He also taught the Queen his language, Urdu, which meant daily contact.
Only days after her death, her son, King Edward, Ms Basu writes, “ordered a raid on his house, demanding he hand over all letters Victoria had written to him. The Munshi, his wife and his nephew watched in horror as the letters in the late Queen’s distinctive handwriting were torn from his desk and cast into a bonfire …”.
Everything our author explains, things that the Queen wrote every day, signing variously as "your dearest friend," "your true friend," and even "your dearest mother," were all gone. “Postcards and letters from the Queen, dated from Windsor Castle, Balmoral, the Royal yacht … and hotels across Europe, crackled in the flames.” King Edward sent the Munshi, (who looked more like a nawab, that is, a native governor, than a servant), his wife and family back to India forthwith.
Karim died in Agra, his home town, in 1909. There he lay “in a bleak, unkempt graveyard guarded by an elderly caretaker and a few stray dogs.” Part of Abdul Karim’s gravestone in Urdu reads, “This is the last resting place of Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim. He is now alone in the world … none can compare with him … The poet prays for him that he find eternal peace in this resting place.”
Edward’s attempt to expunge Abdul’s influence by burning all of the Queen’s letters and notebooks and banishing him didn’t work. Shrabani Basu, the author of “Victoria & Abdul” trenchantly demonstrates that the Queen’s letters and other remembrances were not for burning.
A remnant of their bond remains, “of love and human relationships”, and it is beautifully satisfied by Basu’s book about their friendship.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.