Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante – Shrabani Basu (2010)

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I’d been wanting to jump back into some Victorian history lately, so dug out this book about the slightly strange friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian man who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the end of the nineteenth century.

Called “Victoria and Abdul”, this is a solid non-fiction narrative that describes how a 24-year-old man from the Indian city of Agra ends up meeting and developing an almost inseparable friendship with Queen Victoria, the Empress of India.

Honestly, if you didn’t know this was fact, you’d wonder about the veracity of the story, but it’s a true one.

It’s also true that one can view the storyline through various perspectives, and I’m curious about how others have viewed this history, but for now, I am swayed that Basu, the book’s author, has done her homework and told a factual story.

If you’re not a fangirl or fanboy of Queen Victoria, there’ll be some gaps for you to fill in, but Basu does a good job of giving the reader the necessary background to comprehend what’s going on, and she writes in a straightforward manner which the reader will need as there is a huge cast of characters. Not a book to daydream through, but not difficult. (Plus there are lots of footnotes and citations to back all the information.)

(The only negative that I had for the actual writing was that it was a little simplistic in places, and Basu repeats some information several times (things an editor would have/should have caught, methinks.) But that’s really minor in the big scheme of things.)

Queen_Victoria_and_Abdul_Karim

So – to the story. Queen Victoria, now the Empress of India, was gearing up to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and with her queendom spreading across the world, she wanted to include some of her far-distant subjects in the event.

Abdul Karim was a young medical assistant in Agra’s prison and living a non-eventful life when his name was given to the ruling British diplomats as a possibility for traveling to England for the year prior to the Jubilee celebrations.

Abdul was ecstatic (as one would be) and travelled to England to meet the Queen and to work in her household. After an initial misunderstanding about what the job would actually entail, Abdul ends up serving meals to the royal household.

As time goes on, Abdul impresses the Empress (sorry – couldn’t resist), and his duties start to evolve. Queen Victoria is older now, 50 years on the throne, and it was unlikely that she would travel to India to see her subjects there.

Instead, she bought a group of Indian subjects to England to learn about their country. Abdul starts to give Victoria one-on-one private lessons on the Urdu language, and through their developing friendship and amid much consternation from the Royal Household, Abdul becomes closer and closer to Her Majesty.

Victoria names Abdul the Munshi, which means “clerk” or “teacher”, and over the next fifteen years, the Queen develops a very close maternal relationship with the Munshi (Abdul). He starts to advise her over Indian affairs, over-riding the Queen’s other more seasoned advisors, and Victoria starts to rely on him more and more, over more than just the India question.

He, for his part, pulls strings with Her Majesty to help his family, including giving a healthy pension to his father, and for Victoria’s household staffers, the whole thing is rather alarming.

This relationship causes endless friction throughout the staff at the Royal Household, especially as the Queen hands more power to the Munshi. He travels everywhere with her and spends all day with Her Majesty. She adores him, and does not tolerate any ill will towards him, despite what her advisors tell him.

And so the book goes on: the Munshi ends up with more and more power; one of his friends is thought to be an agitator and staffers delve into his background on suspicion of that. They delve into the background of his father, they try to rein the Queen in, they join forces with other government representatives…

However, Victoria was stubbornly protective of him until she died, and so for fifteen years, the Munshi and his royal friend ruled the roost.

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

So, Victoria was lonely and heart-broken. The stage was set for someone to step up to the plate to fill that hole that Albert had left behind.

If you think about it, Victoria really seemed to need someone close to her for most of her life. For example, once her children had left the palace for their own lives, she partially adopted an African princess, she had a close friendship with another man from India, she had a close friendship (?) with John Brown, and when he died, there was the space for her to make a close friendship with the Munshi.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she would be open to having another friend, unsuitable though the Royal Household may have thought.

In the end, when Victoria dies in January 1901, the Munshi’s life comes to a stop with regard to royalty. King Edward VIII is swift to send the Munshi back to India to live on his land that Victoria had given to him. Edward, not a fan on the Munshi, tracks down and then destroys most of the correspondence between Abdul and the Queen (even sending staffers to the Munshi’s house in India to knock on the door of his family home to see if they had any more letters that had been missed before). No one in the Royal Household wanted the Munshi to use that personal correspondence for money…

It’s all rather sad really. Despite the official background checks, Abdul didn’t have any nefarious goals (apart from some self-serving ones), and so when I turned that last page, I was left wondering what to think about all this.

Were the Royal Household unpleasant (and bullying) to the Munshi out of spite and jealousy? Why did Victoria dig her heels in to protect Abdul so much? As the years have passed, the general consensus seems to be that the Munshi was harmless and a good friend to the lonely Queen.

Being an Indian, he must have stood out in the royal residences, and surrounded by the Queen’s personal and long-employed staffers, it must have been lonely for him at times as well. He knew that he was not well liked.

The staffers’ long campaign to get rid of him failed, perhaps through a combination of racial prejudice and snobbery, and Victoria stuck to her guns for the last fifteen years of her life. The Munshi was actually, through design or otherwise, the last person to see Victoria before the lid of her coffin was put on…

Anyway, it’s an amazing story and I highly recommend this read.  Incidentally, there is also a movie of this book with Dame Judi Dench, which I am interested in tracking down sometime. I read that it takes some fictional liberties though…

I’ll have to see.

By the way, the Smithsonian magazine has a good article on this topic.

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Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire – Simon Winchester (1985/2003)

Having been raised in England and taught (although somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about how “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” I found this title and thought it would tick all my boxes for a good read: travel writing, experienced journalist, geography…

“Outposts” is a good read – a good solid read. It doesn’t sit on the table and beg to be picked up when you put it down for a while, but once you do get into it, it keeps your interest. Winchester is well traveled in his own right, having worked professionally in Uganda, Northern Ireland, Calcutta, the U.S. East coast, South China, and other areas of the world. He writes really well, lets his good sense of humor come through every now and then, and obviously likes and knows what he is talking about.

Outposts is a book that came out of a multi-year project Winchester thought up one day when he was sitting around with friends, and pondering whether England (or Great Britain*) actually had any far-flung outposts still around. Few people could actually remember any real outposts close or far, and so Winchester decided to dig a little deeper. What he thought would take about a year, took several years in the end, and in a more winding route.

Winchester covers various places across the globe, including Hong Kong (prior to the handover), Tristan de Cunha, Ascension Island, St. Helena’s, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and the Pitcairn Islands. Obviously, since this was written in 1983, a great deal of things have changed politically speaking, and this has affected many of the various places that he visited. Although the book mentions that it was updated in 2003, a lot of the references throughout it are very dated and I felt slightly stymied at not knowing the latest status of some of these remote island communities. (However, how much of a duty do authors have to go back and update their work if they can be and are factually based? Presumably, that is the responsibility of the reader? Discuss.)

An interesting travel read about places that I will probably never visit. However, I found it to be fascinating to read about the lives of the people who lived in these places, and found myself wondering how life on a small and very remote island would be. I assume they have internet access and Tv, but do they? Not a lot of communications (except weekly newspapers) was mentioned in the book, but then again, things have changed a great deal communication-wise since then.

The tone of the book vacillated between “Hooray – Britain is great” to a more frowny “look at how the British government is neglecting its own citizens in this far flung area.” It was rather a dressing down for the diplomats and other government employees who were responsible for the folks who live on the islands, and I think this would have benefited from an interview from the British diplomat corps perhaps in an afterword or blended in with the appropriate chapters when it was updated. Are things still like this for the island communities?

Overall, a light hearted and light-handed take on some wide-ranging places across the world. Winchester is good at interviewing people and describing the various locations (especially the weather which was cruel in places), so that was an extra bonus. I have read other Winchester books (pre-blog), and like those, and this, although not quite as good as other work, is still a good read.

*Although I am a Brit, I had no idea that the “Great” in “Great Britain” was because across the channel in France is an area now called Brittany. In early days, this was “Little Britain” and then the UK was “Great Britain”… So now you know. 🙂