How Historically Accurate Is Victoria and Abdul?
Victoria and Abdul is a 2017 movie set in the late Victorian period in 1887-1901. Abdul Karim was appointed as a household servant to Queen Victoria and he became a close friend and teacher (or Munish) to the queen, lasting until her death. The movie depicts this relationship and the various forms of racism and animosity encountered by Abdul as he navigated being a person of South Asian decent who rose to prominence in the household during the Victorian period.
Abdul Karim is a cleric serving in Agra India for the British rulers. He is selected to go to Britain, along with a colleague Mohammed, for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, marking 50 years on throne. Initially, both men are surprised by this appointment but dutifully go. The men are trained for the ceremonies that are to follow for the Jubilee celebrations, but they are treated poorly given uncomfortable accommodations that are damp, cold, and cramped. When it comes time, however, for the men to play their role, and after the Queen arrives for a formal banquet with her guests, she receives a mohur, a type of gold coin, from Abdul. This was an item that was to represent a gift from India to Victoria, as she is Empress of India.
However, the Queen is more fascinated with Abdul than anything else. She soon forms a bond with him, asking him to teach her Urdu and about Islam. Nevertheless, their relationship suddenly grows tense when she finds out Abdul is married. She then decided to have him go back and bring his wife to live in England along with Abdul, with him continuing to serve her in the royal household. Meanwhile, the other courtiers are increasingly bothered by the close relationship Abdul and Victoria form, including Edward, the future King of Great Britain, who is troubled by his mother's relationship with Abdul. Victoria, recognizing she is Empress of India, wants to learn more about India and decides to decorate part of her home in the Isle of Wight in an Indian style. She continues to make progress in understanding Urdu. Abdul now has the formal title of Munshi as Victoria's teacher.
Abdul and Victoria form a close relationship that is like mother and son, with Victoria preferring to spend more time with Abdul than her own son. However, the court begins to create trouble. First, they call out a lie that Abdul told Victoria about the Indian Mutiny, a prolonged Indians rebellion against British rule, where he downplayed rebellions by some of the Indian population. After learning about this lie, and because he embarrassed her as the Queen's courtiers corrected information she though she knew, Victoria decided to expel Abdul but then changes her mind at the last moment. They also learn that, despite Abdul's initial presentation, Abudl does not have royal or noble blood, thus he exalted his social status to Victoria. But again Victoria is not bothered by this. The Marquess of Salisbury, who is Prime Minister, also gets involved in trying to get rid of Abdul.
The court officials and Prime Minister find out Abdul has gonorrhea, but again the Queen stays loyal to Abdul and is not put off by this. With all this plotting, the Queen now decides to Knight Abdul, which the entire household of the Queen finds completely unacceptable. The staff threaten to resign unless Victoria rescinds her offer to Abdul. She then confronts her entire household about their rebellion, although none offer to resign when given the opportunity. The Queen informs her household though she will only make Abdul Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, a lower honour than being knighted, although most still do not like this choice. Soon after, the Queen becomes increasingly sick and becomes bedridden. She realizes that the court will turn against Abdul once she is gone. However, Abdul stays with the Queen until her end and in 1901 she passes.
However, just as the Queen predicted, soon after she dies the court and Edward turn on Abdul. They destroy his gifts and even the Queen's own accounts of her time with Abdul, leaving relatively little for historians and others to learn about her time with Abdul. Despite the confrontational way in which Abdul and his family were removed from court, Abdul's wife managed to save one present Victoria gave Abdul, which was a locket, while they are then forced to flee back to India. A few years later, Abdul is shown still talking and revering the Queen by tending to her statue in an area near the Taj Mahal. In 1909, Abdul dies and most of the story about Abdul became lost only to come to light years after Victoria died because Abdul's family did save records of their time together.
Most of the characters were historical characters. Much of the bigotry and jealousies are based on accounts given from Victoria's own writings.
Victoria: She is, during the movie, an old but lonely woman who had witnessed the death of her husband decades earlier and her close friend John Brown. She appears tired and jaded by court life and longs for a genuine friendship.
Abdul Karim: He is a Muslim Indian who also had memorized the Quran at an early age. He is shown as being ambitious and dutiful, wanting to cultivate his relationship with the Queen. However, he was also very loyal to her and grew to have a close bond and deep friendship with the Queen.
Edward (future Edward VII): Better known as Bertie, he is shown as being jealous and guarded about courtiers, in particular Abdul who he sees as a low born individual taking advantage of his relationship with the Queen. He also finds it horrifying that someone from the India subcontinent has cultivated can even create a close relationship with his mother.
Marquess of Salisbury: He is the Prime Minister, who initially is not involved with court life but sees Abdul's increasing influence as detrimental, particularly as he might influence the Queen's thoughts about India and have greater influence in court. This is particularly the case after it was found Abdul was not truthful about events in India.
Mohammad Bakhsh: Companion to Abdul who progressively becomes sicker as Abdul and he spend more time in Britain. He continually wants to return to India, but Abdul sees an opportunity so they remain. He eventually dies in Britain.
Jane Spencer: A close friend to Victoria, who becomes jealous and mortified by the relationship Abdul and the Queen are having.
Henry Ponsonby: The Queen's secretary who leads the effort to remove Abdul from court after his time in the Golden Jubilee.
Rashidan Karim: Abdul's wife, who is shown as being covered in a black head-to-toe in Islamic dress. This only makes the courtiers more uncomfortable with Abdul; however, the Queen is fascinated by her and meets with Abdul and her in private to see what Rashidan looks like.
Most of the characters depicted were historical. Mohammad Bakhs is a fictional character and relatively little is known about Abdul's wife and family. However, the jealousies, including Abdul's involvement in the Golden Jubilee are true. One problem for historians is because Edward destroyed many of the Queen's records, most of the accounts come from Abdul's family that were obtained much later after Abdul and the Queen had died. Thus, it is possible we are not getting an evenhanded perspective of their relationship. Nevertheless, it does seem the Queen was about to knight Abdul and had to settle in making him Commander of the Royal Victorian Order due to court pressure. The Queen also gave him many gifts, including land in India.
This was little discussed in the movie, but Abdul did grow very wealthy during his time with the Queen and he managed to keep that wealth in India after he was forced out of court. It is not clear if Abdul lied about some key events in India's relationship with Britain; it is also not clear he directly affected policy in India, although he did increase the Queen's interest in the subcontinent. It is not clear if the Queen did try to kick Abdul out at one point, as there is no evidence that she was close to doing so. Nevertheless, much of the movie is accurate in showing that the Queen took interest in learning Urdu and about Islam. She was genuinely interested in learning about her subjects in India and Abdul did help her learn about India, its history, and culture. Overall, the movie depicted a close relationship between two unlikely individuals that caused great stress, particularly in light of the racism and bigotry of the time, but their friendship proved to be genuine for both the Queen and Abdul.
- For more on Victoria's court, see: Schomp, V (2010) Victoria and Her Court. Life in Victorian England. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.
- For more on Edward, see: Ridley J (2013) The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. First U.S. edition. New York: Random House.
- For more on the Marquess, see: Roberts A (2001) Salisbury: Victorian Titan. London: Phoenix.
- For more on the history of Victoria and Abdul, see: Basu S (2011) Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Gloucestershire, Eng.: History Press.