When Victoria met Abdul
Behind the scenes at Osborne House
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