Have a drink with: Abdul Karim
The jewel in the Crown
Ask him about: Royal language lessons
The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a young Indian man assigned to her service in the late 1880s. Karim, originally a clerk from Agra, India, came to Victoria’s service during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. He became a favorite friend and confidante, acting as the Queen’s Urdu language teacher and Indian secretary, much to the frustrated jealousy of the royal household.
Victoria had a complicated relationship with India: on the one hand, she was fascinated with and fetishized all things Indian – learning Urdu, bringing curries onto the regular dining rotation at the palace, and decorating an entire lavish chamber at her Osborne House with Indian arts and architecture (including a lavish portrait of Karim himself, alongside paintings of Indian craftspeople). On the other hand, the allure doesn’t change the fact that she was the ruler of a forcibly and uncomfortably subdued nation of people whose welfare wasn’t permitted to muddle the interior decorating. It’s hard to know for sure whether Abdul Karim was a proxy for Victoria’s general fascination with exotic India; a genuine friend who provided the added benefit of making her stiff-necked family crazy; a subservient target for the Queen’s romantic or maternal impulses; or something else entirely.
Nor is the movie the first time Western voices have been the ones to comment on Abdul Karim’s story, or his status as what writer Bilal Qureshi called “Manic Pixie Dream Brownie.” Karim was no stranger to news media at the time, and American papers particularly covered the fact of his employment with condescending, starchy amusement – like, look at the Queen learning the funny Eastern language! She has an Indian tutor! Just a few of the winning clippings:
Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: Dr. James Barry
Poodle enthusiast, dandy, ace physician
Ask them about: trans soldiers
On July 26, President Trump announced a ban on transgender military service, citing the unsubstantiated likelihood that trans soldiers would subject the military to increased medical costs and an unacceptable degree of “disruption.” LGBT rights groups have since filed suit.
For proof that military accomplishment and gender fluidity readily walk hand in hand, we can look to James Barry, a 19th century military surgeon in the British Army who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone in his life, had been born Margaret Ann Bulkeley.
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: Lovestruck 19th C New Yorkers
Don’t do it, girls!
Ask them about: Victorian-era sexting
In 1893, the city of Baltimore got serious about keeping harmful and degenerate behavior out of its city parks. By which it meant it was tired of kids flirting on on public property, and forbade young couples from courting in the parks lest they offend public morals. The New York press seized on the opportunity to make fun of its southern neighbor, with the World quipping: “A man must not put his arm around a woman’s waist if he has scruples about being indicted…the affectionate and spooning throng have been informed of the terribleness of the fate that will overtake them if they are caught swapping gum or tootsy-wootsying within the park limits.” They also made sure to proudly note that, in New York, “joy is unconfined.” Nyah.
Joy does have its limits, though. You may have earned the right to tootsy-wootsy in Central Park by now, but if we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: NO SEXTING.
Have a drink with: The Duke of Wellington Statue
“A gigantic triumph of bad taste over public opinion.”
Ask it about: Free beer.
In the 1830’s, the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in memory and Britain was eager to redecorate. Since few things say classicism, patriotism and self-praise quite like a good monument, the idea arose to honor Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) with a grand commemorative statue.
Depicting the “Iron Duke” on his trusty horse Copenhagen as the pair might have appeared during the Battle of Waterloo, the bronze statue was commissioned of sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt to sit atop a sculptured arch in Hyde Park Corner. Wyatt planned a statue thirty feet high and weighing forty tons, making it the largest equestrian statue in Britain at the time.
He did not plan on all of Britain thinking he was the giant horse’s ass in the whole affair.
Have a drink with: Vinegar Valentines
You’re awful; I love you
Ask them about: Negging in the Victorian era
Is Valentine’s Day not for you? Are you sick to death of hearts and teddy bears? Can Starbucks shove its molten chocolate latte up its molten mermaid tail? Are you looking for something that more befits the holiday in our modern age, but maybe short of actually cheering for gangland murder?
Search no more, for here to the rescue is the heartless Internet troll of the 19th century: the insult comic valentine.
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
Ask him to bring Jumbo. That elephant could drink.
Ask him about: Picking your Powerball numbers
Last week I gave in to the siren song of Powerball and joined millions of other people in the giddy exercise of mentally spending the billion-plus dollars of my inevitable destiny (what would it cost for the local museum to let me ride the Brontosaurus skeleton, anyway?).
The unprecedented size of the recent jackpot may have created a real and novel sense of reward, but it doesn’t change the most fundamental truth about the lottery, which has remained unchanged over centuries: the real money isn’t in winning the lottery so much as it is in running it.
Have a drink of: homemade 19th century cold medicine
Ask your doctor if it’s right for you!
Side effects may include: vomiting, euphoria, dysphoria, poetry, death.
Getting the sniffles now that winter is upon us? For a fun holiday project, make like it’s the Victorian era and mix up some DIY cough syrup, as directed by the January 1842 issue of the New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album (basically: antebellum Cosmo, with more engravings and fewer sex tips):
Three pops of this each day, and your cough will be gone in no time! Withdrawal symptoms may take a while.
Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.
Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives
In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.
Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?
That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?