Terry Ramsey reviews the documentary exploring Queen Victoria's relationship with her Indian servant Abdul Karim.
By Terry Ramsey 26 Apr 2012 in The Telegraph
You may have seen the stories that pop up in the popular press about British women, old enough to know better, who fall in love with dusky young waiters in far-flung parts of the world. But it seems that like so many unusual British customs, this practice dates back to Victorian times – and was pioneered by the Queen herself.
Yes, according to Queen Victoria’s Last Love (Channel 4), she became enamoured of a handsome table-hand, having fallen for his exotic charms. His name was Abdul Karim, and in 1887 he was given to Queen Victoria by the Indian arm of the Empire to be a servant. It was not long before the attentive young man caught her eye.
Queen Victoria had by this time lost her beloved consort Albert (in 1861) and subsequent companion, the ghillie John Brown (in 1883). Maybe she had a soft spot for servants because, at almost 70, she fell under the spell of Karim, who was in his early twenties – though, despite the teasing title of this documentary, it was not a sexual, or even a romantic, affair. She loved him like a mother – and, indeed, signed letters to him as that. He became her teacher and she learned Hindustani from him. She gave him houses (three of them), a luxury lifestyle and medals.
Needless to say, this wasn’t popular in royal circles, where Karim was despised for being a servant (which meant he was low class), for being an Indian (which meant he was even lower) and for being Queen Victoria’s favourite (which is what really hurt). This antipathy wasn’t helped by Karim’s personality.
“If one knew him today he would be a pain in the arse,” said Farrukh Dhondy, author of a TV screenplay about Karim. “He was pompous, conceited – you can see it in his face – and absolutely did not think of knowing his place. He pushed for whatever he could get.”
The Royal household hated the man, and tried to get rid of him – writing letters attacking him, sending an envoy (with the marvellous name of Fritz Ponsonby) to investigate his Indian background and even, in the case of the Queen’s medic, Sir James Reid, revealing that Karim had gonorrhoea.
So much for the doctors’ oath of secrecy.
But the harder they attacked, the more Queen Victoria supported her man – until her family threatened to have her declared insane. Mind you, she was planning to give Karim a knighthood, so they felt they had a point.
This documentary told the story in an entertaining fashion and, given the limited photographs and documents available, writer and director Rob Coldstream kept the story flowing with expert interviewees and dramatised scenes – the latter a technique that can be clumsy but was subtly effective here. It featured a very believable Queen Victoria, played by Veronica Clifford, who appeared suitably fearsome and, at times, imperiously deluded.
This film about Queen Victoria and the lowly Indian she loved was all terribly British
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 25 April 2012
They were a rum lot, the Victorians, weren't they? What a crazy, throbbing mass of crinolined contradictions and conflicts they were – endless charitable good works on the one hand, endemic poverty and unshakeable belief in the undeserving poor on the other. It was social suicide if you fiddled suggestively with a glove button in mixed company, but you could shag your way round every brothel in Covent Garden without anyone batting an eyelid. Probably because said eyelids were drooping in the opium dens between brothels, but that's another story.
It is only appropriate, then, that Queen Victoria, leader and symbol of the age, was the rummest of the lot. Deprived of her passionate marriage to Prince Albert by his untimely and very inconsiderate death, she sublimated her energies into overcomplicating mourning practices for the nation ("What a load of crepe!" they cried from Land's End to John O'Groats), turning the map pink and cultivating disconcertingly deep friendships with unsuitable types. First, as we all know, there was Billy Connolly who, before he became a successful standup comedian, was a ghillie and then personal servant to the Queen. He died of sporran-mite in 1883 and the Queen went on to develop an equally intense friendship with Abdul Karim, a Muslim native of Jhansi in British India, which was unpicked last night in Queen Victoria's Last Love (Channel 4).
In the course of their friendship, which spanned the last 14 years of her life, Victoria lavished attention, promotions and delightful, often house-shaped, baubles on Karim, who began his working life with her as a waiter at table and rose to become her personal secretary. It seems to have brought out the worst in everyone. Karim, whose early history suggested he was born a man on the make, became domineering and arrogant. The Royal Household, being already domineering and arrogant, was able to concentrate on becoming furiously resentful of Karim's unprecedented transgression of racial, social and – the thought was always in the air if rarely spoken – sexual boundaries, and uniting against him. Victoria became only more fiercely loyal. The only time she ever gave in was when her son, the Prince of Wales, said he and her doctor would have her declared insane if she went ahead as planned and knighted him. He remained untitled, but at her side until she died. Then they turfed Karim out of his house(s) and burned everything he owned that carried the royal crest, in a raging conflagration of snobbery and racism. He was banished to India and died there a few years later.
The programme was neat, orderly and interesting but never sprang to life as the material could surely have allowed. Everything was covered, but nothing and nobody was pressed. It had that oddly muted air that you often find even now in documentaries about the royals and/or the rich folk around them. Descendants of the protagonists were allowed to tell the family versions of the story without much by way of challenge, alternative viewpoint or fleshed-out background. Everyone preferred to emphasise the class rather than racial aspect of events – the Victorian fetishisation of hierarchy being so much more absurd and palatable to modern tastes than the deep, ingrained prejudices that allow you to colonise all those you perceive as lesser beings. It was all, if you like, terribly British.
Last Night's Viewing: Queen Victoria’s Last Love, Channel 4
TIM WALKER THURSDAY 26 APRIL 2012 in The Independent
Every year at the court of Queen Victoria, the royal household amused itself with "am-drams": costumed aristos created tableaux inspired by well-known paintings and stories.
Sometime around 1890, the photographic record shows, an Indian man appeared as a servant in the background of one such image. Within a few years, however, Abdul Karim was centre stage, seated on a throne, as the King of Egypt. This fantastic detail, from Channel 4's engaging documentary Queen Victoria's Last Love, reflected Karim's rising real-life status as the favourite servant of the elderly Victoria. Arriving at court in 1887 as a mere table-hand, he soon became the Queen's Hindustani teacher and beloved "Munshi". She gave the young man houses at three of her residences, and signed her letters to him "Mother".
Great Britain was gripped by Islamophobia, exacerbated by its imperial forays in the Islamic world, but the Empress defended Karim from anti-Muslim prejudice. This sounds remarkably enlightened for the 19th century, until you learn she loved her servant so much that she wrote to the Viceroy of India, recommending he ban a rival Hindu festival.
Karim's improper, irresistible rise infuriated the household, who did everything in their power to undermine him. The Queen was deterred from awarding him a knighthood on her Diamond Jubilee only when her doctor threatened to declare her insane. After she died in 1901, Karim was banished to the lands he'd accrued in India.
We know about Victoria's former favourite, John Brown, thanks to Billy Connolly. But this was an intriguing, rarely told final chapter of the Queen's life, narrated in the genial tones of Geoffrey Palmer. The Munshi was not the wronged gentleman one might imagine, but a creature of raw ambition. "Pompous, conceited... A pain in the arse," was one historian's assessment.