"In letters to him over the years between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the queen signed letters to him as 'your loving mother' and 'your closest friend'," author Shrabani Basu told the BBC... "It was unquestionably a passionate relationship - a relationship which I think operated on many different layers in addition to the mother-and-son ties between a young Indian man and a woman who at the time was over 60 years old."
[Abdul Karim, photo from the BBC story]
He taught her Urdu, instructed her in Indian culture and history, and introduced her to Indian cuisine -- she took particularly to curry dishes. The friendship followed on her earlier closeness as a middle-aged widow with a rough-hewn Scottish servant John Brown, famously captured in the film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly. Abdul Karim, however, was promoted beyond the status of a servant, while John Brown was not. Karim become Queen Victoria's private secretary and "was bestowed with many honours as the royal party travelled around Europe meeting monarchs and prime ministers."
Certainly both friendships were frowned upon by the Queen's family and advisers, and most particularly that with Abdul Karim. Following Victoria's death her son, Edward VII, ordered letters and evidence of the relationship destroyed, and Karim was dismissed from Royal service.
So what exactly did the very unconventional figures of John Brown, and then Abdul Karim, provide for the widowed Queen? Companionship certainly, and a certain safety in their status as subservient figures -- for all their personal charm and endearing qualities. They may have, however, been "equals" to the Queen in another sense. Perhaps both parties identified as marginal figures, living somewhat detached from their worlds -- as if observers of their own lives. While it may seem rather odd to refer to the Queen of England (and Empress of India) as a "marginal figure," during this period of her life she was well entrenched into her 40 years of dour widowhood, cossetted in the Royal estates, and rarely emerging to preform ceremonial duties. She was a figurehead, the mother of the nation -- but mostly in photographs, swathed in black, frozen in time in the age when her dear Prince Albert was still alive. As "Other" figures, Brown and Karim quite possibly allowed the Queen to step out of the expectations of her role. The opprobrium of advisers and family (particularly her son Bertie -- Edward VII -- whom she blamed for her husband's premature death) may have merely strengthened this feeling.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils