A few ideas popped up for this post, but since I write historical fiction, I decided to honor Midsummer by talking about Queen Victoria, with a passing mention of mangoes.
June 28, 2019, is the 181st anniversary of the coronation of the nineteen-year-old Queen Victoria. Her stable and fecund marriage and her famous stodginess has branded the looooong years of her reign in the same way the post-World War II 1950s are remembered as Ozzie and Harriet-land.
For someone so stuffy and boring, Victoria has managed to stir up a lot of twentieth and twenty-first century publicity. The movie Mrs. Brown depicted her long and intimate friendship with Scottish servant, John Brown; The Young Victoria covered her early life, marriage and court intrigues; and of course, there’s the PBS mini-series about her which just finished its second season.
Her most recent depiction in film is Victoria and Abdul. The movie features the “Munshi-mania” surrounding her close friendship with another much younger and much more-foreign-than-a-Scotsman male servant. Abdul Karim, a Muslim Indian from Agra, became her teacher, or “Munshi”.
Last year Victoria’s name popped up when the Wall Street Journal featured an article by novelist Chandrahas Choudhury about the 1663 varieties of Indian mangoes. Persuaded by her Munshi’s praise of the “Queen of Fruit”, Queen Victoria ordered her household to import mangoes from India. They were, predictably, “off” because of the fruit’s short shelf life.
I personally don’t like mangoes, but Choudhury has an explanation for that:
Whichever god brought forth the mango, she did so as a project that would frustrate imperial desires in the 19th century and defeat even the global supply system of capitalism in the 21st. That’s why almost all the mangoes in American markets are the fine-looking but bland, fibrous pretenders from Florida, Brazil or Mexico, not the storied ones of India.
Someday maybe I’ll get to visit India and sample a true Queen of Fruit.
Motivated by the mango story, I watched the movie Victoria and Abdul and started the book on which the movie is based. Shrabani Basu’s book is a beautifully written work of nonfiction. She delves into the patronage culture of Victoria’s court and British colonialism to tell the story about the deep friendship between the Queen and Karim.
When the elderly Queen Victoria is smitten by young Karim, the court is appalled at their growing friendship and the gifts she showers on him as he tutors her in Urdu and Indian culture.
What was the Queen’s motivation? Basu has this to say:
What her family could not comprehend was that the Queen was a born romantic…The death of her beloved husband had left her lonely and heartbroken…It fell to John Brown to draw her out of her self-imposed isolation, and the Queen soon leaned strongly on him. Brown was devoted to her and she could talk freely to him…His death once again robbed her of a companion.
When the Munshi arrived…his presence lifted her spirits…The Queen sensed a certain depth in Karim and found she could talk to him comfortably despite the language barriers. Karim brought her closer to India, the country that she had always longed to visit.
Is true friendship and loyalty possible between a powerful older woman and a younger man? Why would Karim leave the warmth of India for the cold and hostile British Court?
In the film, an Indian servant tells the British courtiers that Karim was toadying for favors like everyone else there. Otherwise, the filmmakers depict a close friendship between the Queen and her Munshi. Based on her research, Basu believes Karim’s regard for the Queen was genuine.
“All history is written by the victors,” and worthy of questioning. This is especially true of films which are crafted to make sure tickets sell and the audience doesn’t fall asleep. Setting, costume, and language bring a story to life, but filmmakers pick and choose what to include, what to omit, and what to make up to hit all the plot points and story arcs.
The Victoria and Abdul filmmakers did a good job, but they were honest about their craft. The opening credits include this statement:
Based on real events mostly
My vote: if you want the full story, the book is always better. What do you think?
If you’ve read this far, thank you for indulging my historical nerdiness. Happy Summer!
All images are from Wikimedia Commons except for the mangoes which are from depositphotos.com
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