Much has been written about the 2017 British biographical comedy-drama ‘Victoria and Abdul’ and the multiple contrasts between the two protagonists: Queen and subject; geriatric frailty and youth; Christianity (and the head of the church of England, no less) and Islam; the violation of Victorian taboos of race and class and protocol, a tale of love and loathing at the heart of the British court that would put the Empress of India on a collision course with her royal household, all over her relationship with an Indian ‘servant’.
The film opens with a sort of disclaimer: “Based on facts…mostly.” The one-word caveat “mostly” says a lot. Based on Shrabani Basu’s eponymous book, it is directed by Stephen Frears, with screenplay by Lee Hall. Hall later published the screenplay of the film in another book, also called ‘Victoria and Abdul.’ In the introduction, he recounts how Frears’ “beady eye for the preposterousness of any situation and his generally wicked sense of irony” was perfectly matched with Hall’s own “’subaltern’ take on the pretensions of empire”.
A fair degree of artistic license is taken. The one I wish to remark upon is the encounter with the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini when the royal household goes to Florence on vacation. This encounter isn’t mentioned in Basu’s book.
“PONSONBY: Signor Puccini has arrived, your Majesty.
(We are in the middle of the recital. The Royal Household are listening to a fat man singing ‘Donna non vidi mai’ at the piano. Abdul is listening intently next to the Queen, Bertie next to Lady Churchill. Ponsonby says something to Dr. Reid. The Munshi turns)
(The fat man at the piano finishes his song. Abdul applauds enthusiastically).
QUEEN VICTORIA: And where did you say it was from, Mr. Puccini?
PUCCINI: It’s from my new opera ‘Manon Lescaut’. It’s about two lovers separated by the class divide who run away together.
QUEEN VICTORIA: It sounds marvelous.
PUCCINI: But she is imprisoned for her love, Your Majesty.
QUEEN VICTORIA: Oh.
PUCCINI: But they escape.
QUEEN VICTORIA: Bravo
PUCCINI: But finally she dies leaving him utterly bereft.
QUEEN VICTORIA: I’m not sure we like the sound of it. We prefer comic opera. Do you know any Gilbert and Sullivan?
ABDUL: Perhaps Your Majesty will sing a song?
QUEEN VICTORIA: Oh no. I couldn’t possibly.
(The Household on cue) :
LADY CHURCHILL: But please, Your Majesty.
BERTIE (aside): God save us!
QUEEN VICTORIA: Well, just one. From ‘Pinafore’, Bertie.
BERTIE: Do I have to?
(Bertie, reluctantly, goes to the piano)
QUEEN VICTORIA: ‘Little Buttercup.’ In C.
(Bertie sits at the piano with immense reluctance. Queen Victoria sings ‘Little Buttercup’ poorly. She dries, but Ponsonby prompts the applause.)”
So, is this encounter fact or fiction? Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858-1924) were certainly contemporaries. Puccini’s opera ‘Manon Lescaut’ premiered in 1893, which fits neatly with the timeframe 1887-1897 between Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees when her attachment to Abdul Karim blossomed.
Basu’s book describes the annual trip to Europe of the royal household: Portsmouth to Cherbourg on board the ‘Victoria and Albert’ (escorted by torpedo boats!); then the Royal train from there to Florence, where the Queen would stay at the Villa Palmieri or the Villa Fabricotti, meeting other royalty, visiting the Uffizi gallery, and other pastimes. Thence the entourage would travel to Berlin or other destinations.
Thus, although it is possible that the Queen of England and the King of Opera could have met, such a momentous encounter would certainly have been chronicled. Interestingly, in the film, after the quoted extract above, Queen Victoria exclaims “I was taught by Mendelssohn, you know!” although this isn’t in Lee Hall’s published version of the script.
Both Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were accomplished pianists and singers (so the screenplay reference to her singing ‘poorly’ is perhaps undeserved, or reflects her advanced age). Their shared love of music was one of the many things that fuelled their mutual attraction. When Mendelssohn was invited to Buckingham Palace, according to one account, the royal couple was nervous with anticipation: “For all their exalted station, they were quite fluttery!”
A meticulous diarist, the Queen wrote later: “After dinner came Mendelssohn, whose acquaintance I was so anxious to make… He is short, dark, & Jewish-looking, delicate, with a fine intellectual forehead. I should say he must be about 35 or 6. He is very pleasing & modest… He played first of all some of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words)’, after which…he asked us to give him a theme upon which he could improvise. We gave him 2, ‘Rule Britannia’, & the Austrian National Anthem. He began immediately & really I have never heard anything so beautiful, the way in which he blended them both together & changed over from one to the other, was quite wonderful as well as the exquisite harmony & feeling he puts into the variations, & the powerful rich chords, & modulations, which reminded me of all his beautiful compositions. At one moment he played the Austrian National Anthem with the right hand, he played ‘Rule Britannia’ as the bass, with his left! He made some further improvisations on well-known tunes & songs. We were all filled with the greatest admiration. Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he had done playing.”
She would certainly have jotted down a similar account of her meeting with Puccini had it taken place. So we have to assume that some artistic liberty was taken in inserting Puccini (dismissively described, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘a fat man’ and played with great relish and in fine voice by Simon Callow) into the screenplay.
One good reason would be to compare the class divide between the lovers Manon Lescaut and Chevalier Renato des Grieux in Puccini’s opera and between Victoria and Abdul, a cinematic form of allegorical play-within-a-play. It is also an omen of the fate awaiting Victoria and Abdul: “But finally she dies, leaving him utterly bereft.” The story of Victoria and Abdul is in itself a tragicomic opera of sorts.
And the title of the aria ‘Donna non vidi mai’, sung by des Grieux totally besotted by Manon soon after their first encounter, can be loosely translated as ‘Never before have I beheld a woman such as this.’
This could well be the sentiment of Abdul, (who shushes Dr. Reid and Ponsonby, his archenemies in the Royal Household, when their chatter disturbs the performance of the aria and “applauds enthusiastically” at the end of it), in his adoring regard for the Queen.
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)