When Vic­to­ria met Ab­dul

Be­hind the scenes at Os­borne House

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - NIGEL RICHARD­SON

Some­what in­evitably, the roly-poly es­tate cat at Os­borne House, Queen Vic­to­ria’s Ital­ianate palace on the Isle of Wight, is called Vic­to­ria. Watch­ing her snooz­ing in the late sum­mer sun I find it hard to imag­ine Os­borne as a hot­bed of spite­ful­ness and con­tro­versy. But that was the case in the 1890s when Vic­to­ria af­fronted the Royal House­hold, and chal­lenged con­tem­po­rary views on race and so­cial stand­ing, by tak­ing a shine to an em­ployee.

Hand­some he may have been — the Queen had form when it came to the male form, hav­ing fa­mously de­clared Al­bert to be “beau­ti­ful” — but Ab­dul Karim was also hum­ble-born, In­dian by birth and Mus­lim by re­li­gion. The story of his as­so­ci­a­tion with the age­ing monarch is told in Vic­to­ria and Ab­dul, a new film by Stephen Frears star­ring (some­what in­evitably) Dame Judi Dench as Good Queen Vic and the Bol­ly­wood ac­tor Ali Fazal as her Mun­shi, the colo­nial ep­i­thet, mean­ing sec­re­tary, by which she knew him.

The Queen spent three to four months of every year at Os­borne and, of course, died there. The bed­cham­ber where she breathed her last is the fo­cal point of a tour of the house for most vis­i­tors and the royal nurs­ery pro­vides a charm­ing in­sight into her happy do­mes­tic life. But the most star­tling of the pub­lic rooms is the In­dian-themed Dur­bar Room, a lav­ish ban­quet­ing hall the queen com­mis­sioned in 1890.

It’s here Vic­to­ria gave full ex­pres­sion to her fas­ci­na­tion with In­dia and the ex­tra­or­di­nary plas­ter ceil­ing and walls, cov­ered with tra­di­tional Mughal and Hindu mo­tifs, pro­vided her with a flavour of the coun­try she loved dearly but never vis­ited. This is the first time the in­te­ri­ors of the house have ap­peared in a fea­ture film and they make a mem­o­rable back­drop.

Ab­dul Karim ar­rived on the scene in 1887, the year of the Queen’s Golden Ju­bilee, af­ter she asked for two In­dian ser­vants to be re­cruited to her staff. “When she took a lik­ing to him he took full ad­van­tage,” says Michael Hunter, the cu­ra­tor at Os­borne. “He cer­tainly had an eye for the main chance.”

At first he waited on her at meal­times — amid the splen­dour of Os­borne’s din­ing room, with its mon­u­men­tal fam­ily por­traits — but he ob­jected to this hum­ble role and was soon con­vey­ing the red boxes con­tain­ing of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence to her pri­vate apart­ments on the first floor. The Royal House­hold grew in­creas­ingly ag­grieved at his el­e­vated po­si­tion and ev­i­dent close­ness to the

Os­borne House, top; Dur­bar Room, above right; Queen Vic­to­ria’s bed­room, above

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