An Osborne House story

When you visit Osborne house on the Isle of Wight, it is easy to be dazzled by its sheer size and the amounts of paintings and artefacts within it. It is almost easy to miss the portraits which tell a fascinating story of a man who disappeared from existence for over a hundred years.

Throughout her life, Queen Victoria was an avid diarist. It was a habit that was first introduced to her by her mother, who only did so in order to be able to read her daughter’s every thought. The queen continued writing her diary and if someone had tried to publish it, it would have filled no less than 700 books with over 50 million words.

Unfortunately, a big chunk of the diary was destroyed by her family after her death and most of what was left was completely edited by her daughter, Beatrice, who spent years doing so. In fact, today when you see Victoria’s diary, you actually see the handwriting of Beatrice and not the queen herself. Beatrice did this on the request of Victoria who wanted to eliminate certain things from her diary, but in doing so, many events and characters from the monarch’s life have disappeared entirely from this valuable source of evidence. One of them was the story of her last male companion and friend, Abdul Karim.

Osborne House

Abdul was not the first servant play an important part in Victoria’s life. Although she gave her name to a very class-conscious period of history, Victoria was not a snob and did not care about social barriers. The first servant she “adopted” was a Scottish Highlander named John Brown and he became her companion at Osborne after her husband Albert died. He was her closest friend and confidante and was even immortalized in a book the queen wrote about her visit to Scotland. This book became a bestseller and horrified the rest of the royal family and the government. John Brown was one of the main characters in it and when the queen was writing the second part of the book, publishing was stopped in order to avoid a scandal. Rumours about an intimate relationship, a secret marriage and even a love child grew as the queen and her servant spent more and more time together.

When John Brown died in 1883, the queen needed a new favourite and to this role came Abdul Karim, who arrived at Osborne when he was only 24 to serve as a footman. Karim arrived as part of the Jubilee celebrations of the queen’s. He was promoted very quickly to the role of the  “Munshi”, a private teacher or secretary, whose job was to teach the queen about the Indian culture and language: after all, she was the empress of the country. Victoria was by now 70 and her family and court saw him as the “new John Brown with a turban”.

 

The queen loved him, however, and gave him everything he wanted, including the old room of John Brown’s and his own carriage. Whenever someone from her family complained about the special treatment he was getting, the queen would call them a racist. But to be fair, Abdul Karim really enjoyed the special relationship with the queen and became very arrogant. When the queen decided to take a trip to the French Riviera and to take Abdul Karim with her, her entire staff revolted and threatened to resign. The queen went into a tantrum and won; her Munshi travelled with her and she referred to him as her secretary.

 

When Victoria died, the family acted swiftly. The Munshi was first fired and then he was sent back to India with his entire family. All the letters between him and the queen were burned, and as we already know, Princess Beatrice re-edited her mother’s diaries and erased Karim from history. But bits and pieces from the story survived and historians started to seek more information about the “man in the portrait” at Osborne house. They managed to discover a great deal of information in the one source of “Victoria’s words” that her family could not reach, the letters she wrote to her daughter, also named Victoria, in Germany. These letters survived the family’s wrath and thanks to them, enough information about the special relationship with Karim was uncovered. A book was written by Shrabani Basu and in 2017, a film ‘’Victoria and Abdul’’ was released, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal.

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