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The enigma that is ‘Rani Bhikteria’

A Kolkata chaiwallah who had hoped to rake in money at Amit Shah’s rally was bitterly disappointed when no one turned up. He was in the wrong place. Never having heard of the office block called Victoria House where the Bharatiya Janata Party faithful assembled, he had assumed the venue — “Victoria” — was Victoria Memorial, the imposing marble monument that dominates the city and perpetuates the memory of the Empress of India. In contrast, Victoria’s son, Edward VII, was so completely upstaged by his own mount that his equestrian statue in Mumbai was never called anything but Kala Ghoda. Therefore, instead of urging Indians not to “remain permanent captives of the East India Company” (which is one with Nineveh and Tyre), Manmohan Singh should have asked listeners to exorcise Victoria’s ghost. Agra Municipality’s recent removal of her statue from a city park confirmed that 113 years after her death the queen-empress remains a palpable symbol of imperial power.

A N Wilson’s magisterial biography of this extraordinary woman explains why with dedication and sensitivity. Sadly, it suffers from some sloppy passages and occasional inattention to detail as did his magnum opus, The Victorians. But it is grandly evocative and interpretative (the facts, after all, are already well known) like Katherine Frank’s life of Indira Gandhi which, too, had its blemishes. India is a small part of Wilson’s story, smaller, perhaps, than it was in Victoria’s later years when surrounded by her beloved Munshi, Hafiz Abdul Karim, and other Indian attendants, she luxuriated in dreams of being an oriental potentate, the Kaiser-i-Hind, no less. By embellishing Disraeli’s “the key of India is London” with his own view that London’s  key was not merely the political establishment and parliament but a monarch known for her “love of the Empire, and in particular her obsession with India,” Wilson paints a larger than life portrait of a woman whose many distinguished biographers include Lytton Strachey and Elizabeth Longford.

Predictably, the enlargement exaggerates virtues and vices. Her “monster-ego” is inflated; so are spells of insanity and an addiction to whisky. Wilson implied that if John Brown wasn’t her husband, he was her lover. Her infatuation with her Indian servants in the teeth of hostility further demonstrated that Victoria flouted “Victorian” notions of propriety. But Wilson believes she made the British monarchy “riotously more popular” at a time when thrones were toppling all over Europe, kings were being assassinated and protest strikes, marches and bloody clashes with the police reflected the gathering strength of republicanism in Britain. Despite seven attempts on her life, she was Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign. The conclusion that “the Queen, for all her caprices and whims, was, at heart, at one with the suburban Tory majority of England” may seem strange until one remembers she demurred at raising Lionel de Rothschild — a Jew who borrowed hugely from foreign governments and speculated on the stock exchange — to the peerage.

Victoria’s anomalies match Wilson’s inconsistencies in portraying the “inner woman”. He claims her “communications network” spared Britain several European entanglements, notably war with Germany. But after loyally reading out her letters to the Cabinet, Gladstone would say, “And now, gentlemen, to business.” Other prime ministers often turned a politely deaf ear to her pleas to promote favourites, including a Muslim of dubious reputation she wanted sent to Turkey as ambassador. She may have been a passionate advocate of the Prince Consort’s vision of European unity but at a time when Europe was ruled by mutually hostile royals, her voluminous correspondence with them was bound to cross foreign office wires.

Wilson has travelled extensively in search of the inner woman, scrutinised masses of documents, interviewed unlikely people and even inspected two lavatories made by Thomas Crapper of Chelsea at Schloss Ehrenburg that she was unable to use when lunching there with Emperor Franz Josef. But, ultimately, the real inner woman eludes him as she eludes all other chroniclers. There is so much material to pick and choose from that almost any conclusion about her can be made to appear plausible. The real drawback is that there isn’t enough authentic material. Despite some flamboyant posturing, Victoria was an intensely private person. She revealed herself only in diaries and letters that Edward VII and her daughter, Beatrice, ruthlessly destroyed.

In consequence, the queen-empress remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to which legends cling like barnacles. In Laurence Housman’s 1934 play, Victoria Regina, Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, promotes the Saxe-Coburg marriage after satisfying himself that Prince Albert was not the duke’s son and was therefore free of the royal taint of haemophilia. Many years later the film The Mudlark (Irene Dunne and Alec Guinness) showed an endearing young intruder bringing the queen out of seclusion. Tanika Gupta’s play, The Empress, was last year’s daring addition to that genre, portraying a flirtatious Victoria dancing with the Munshi and saying “Me tum se pyar karti hui… With all my heart.”

Returning to the real-life Victoria, it shocked those who prepared her for burial to discover she had a ventral hernia and a prolapse of the uterus. She must have been in acute discomfort without ever breathing a word about it. No doctor had ever set eyes on her body; they weren’t allowed to touch her even with a stethoscope for which she had a peculiar aversion. This secrecy extended into the grave. Her family had no inkling what votive offerings and souvenirs she had commanded her doctor and dresser to place in the coffin. “This was in itself emblematic: there was so much of the Queen’s inner life which would always remain a mystery to her children,” Wilson admits.

But those who approached the fat and fussy little woman knew they were “in the presence of greatness”. Some sense of that greatness still lingers in India. A Himalayan dak bungalow chowkidar told me proudly as late as the 1970s that he didn’t work for any state chief minister but for “Rani Bhikteria”. She personified the all-powerful central government.

A N Wilson
Publisher: Atlantic Books distributed by Penguin Books India
Pages: 656
Price: Rs 999


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