You may know her as one of the "Annas" who has been paired by Hollywood with a Siamese king.
Anna Before Siam
Anna liked to say that she was born in 1834 in England to a British officer, but she was actually born in 1831 in India to an enlisted man. Anna's father died before she was born, and her mother married again, another enlisted man. As a single mother with three small children, Anna's mother probably had little choice in such matters; remarriage was one of the best ways to ensure that she and her children would be clothed and fed. Young Anna and her family lived in the squalid overcrowded enlisted men's barracks; the children most likely slept on mats under their parents' bed. An additional hardship for Anna was the fact that her mother was probably Eurasian - a person of mixed caucasian/asian race - and thus looked down on by whites. These ignoble facts helped put Anna on the lowest rungs of British colonial society. One may conjecture that Anna's insecurity about what she perceived as her plebeian background exacerbated her tendency to view things European as always, and inevitably, superior to things Asian.
When Anna was in her teens her parents wanted her to marry a much older officer, but Anna wasn't keen on this idea. She hooked up with a priest and travelled with him to the Middle East. Some people speculate that the two had an illicit
relationship, and perhaps they did. In any case, by leaving India Anna was able to avoid a marriage she didn't want. When she was 18 she fell in love with the itinerant
young Thomas Leon Owens. They married and had four children, two of whom survived. The young family travelled around Asia, while Thomas supported the family by doing whatever work he could find. In Malaysia
Thomas contracted a fatal fever, leaving behind a young widow
of 27 with two children to support. Anna combined Thomas' second and family name into a new last name for herself - Leonowens. She never married again.
The Siamese Connection
Anna was 31, living in Singapore, and in desperate need of a job when she received a letter from Mongkut, the king of Siam. The missive is an excellent example of his charmingly idiosyncratic, but perfectly comprehensible, English; his awareness of orientalist views of Siam; and his concern that her teachings cover academic, rather than religious, subjects. It read:
English Era, 1862, 26th February
We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) that you will do your best endeavour for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, and are desirous to have facility in English language and literature, more than new religions....
S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut.
So Anna sent her daughter Avis off to boarding school in England and set off for Siam with her son Louis and two Indian servants.
Was Anna a brave adventurer for going off to live in Siam? Not particularly. After all, she had lived almost all her life in Asia. Also, there was large community of foreign missionaries and traders in Bangkok at that time. Europeans had been living in and visiting the kingdom since the 17th century.
In Bangkok, Anna's relations with the European community were not always smooth. The higher class of foreigners in Bangkok could tell clearly enough that Anna was not what she said she was, and snubbed her. The traders and sailors who had a similar background to her were a rough lot, and she snubbed them. The American missionaries, less class conscious than the British, were more welcoming to her.
Anna Writes Siam
Anna wrote two books about her years in the kingdom, both American bestsellers in their time, and each misleadingly titled. The first she called The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being the Recollection of Six Years at the Royal Palace in Bangkok (1870), though she was actually employed as an English teacher for the royal children and sometime foreign correspondence secretary to the king, and not as a governess, and was in the kingdom for five, not six, years. The second, The Romance of the Harem, (re-issued as Siamese Harem Life) (1873), served by its moniker to subsume Southeast Asian concubinage under the rubric of the oriental harem with its attendant qualities of decadence, opulence, and barbarism. The English Governess is a good example of a nineteenth century traveller's tale, interspersing narrative with ethnographic description, often of events which Anna had not attended, such as the coronation of the king. The Romance diverges even farther from anything Anna herself witnessed, stringing together diverse stories from all over Asia into a tragic tale of oriental women blighted by male lust. The two books formed the basis for Margaret Landon's sensationalist reworking of the story, Anna and the King of Siam, itself the inspiration for the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and the 1956 Academy award-winning musical "The King and I".
As this dubious legacy illustrates, Anna did little to dispel the image of Siam as a benighted land, and the popularity of her often inventive accounts has proved galling for Siamophiles. Some problems concern her tendency to sacrifice historical accuracy for sensationalism. For example, she claims that in 1865 commoners were immolated on the site of two new palace gates, a practice that speaks volumes about Asiatic heartlessness, but little about reality. Historian Michael Smithies juxtaposed Anna's passage to a remarkably similar excerpt from the French explorer Henri Mouhot's account of his Southeast Asian travels between 1858 and 1860. Anna engaged in plagiarism, it would appear.
Likewise, Anna's declaration that women who displeased the king were kept chained in dungeons is unbelievable: underground chambers could hardly have existed in the capital, given the high water level and flooding Bangkok experiences to this day.
Much of the controversy, however, has been generated by her portrayal of Mongkut, still revered in Thailand as a wise monarch who helped guide the kingdom into modernity. Anna wrote that she and the king often disagreed over how he treated his subjects. He would become angry and vengeful, and punish his subjects, often in horrifyingly cruel ways. Anna would go visit the king and attempt to intervene, pleading for and counselling mercy. This is not believable. Mongkut was a Buddhist who had spent 27 years as a monk, learning compassion. The suggestion that it took an English teacher to teach him mercy strains Anna's crediblity in the extreme.
Anna wrote herself into the center of court life in Siam, but the king, an erudite man, mentioned her in his voluminous correspondence only once, saying she was "rather nosy". She was given to portraying her influence on Siam, particularly on the future king Chulalongkorn as decisive, but in this, as in much else, she exaggerated wildly.
In her books she waxed eloquent on the childishness and cupidity of the Siamese and the ostentatious and barbarous splendour of the royal court and its ruler. She reserved her harshest invective for what she perceived as the slavery of the women of the palace: the king's "harem", as she referred to them in her second book. Anna found the institution of polygamy disgusting, and her rhetoric reached lofty hights as she tried to convey her horror at the situation of the king's wives and concubines: for them, "the sickening hideousness of slavery", "bondage", "pain, deformity, darkness, death, and eternal emptiness" in "gloomy cells". Many of the vignettes in her books centred around women regaling her with startlingly eloquent pleas for assistance in helping them escape their miserable lives in the palace.
In effect, Anna was constructing an orientalist analogue to the late nineteenth century elite women's discourse on male vice and female virtue, recreating a familiar English fear on alien soil. Siamese men in general, and Mongkut in particular, were portrayed as greedy and lustful, and women as either sweetly and innocently adoring of their "masters" or bitterly resentful of their "slavery". She took men's polygamy and women's monogamy for granted.
Anna wrote passionately about the plight of Siamese women and their struggles for freedom. But what was the life of Siamese women like?
Outside the palace, women worked hard in commerce and agriculture. Early European visitors often mentioned with surprise - and disdain - how active Siamese women were in public life. Inside the palace, women received an education and were guaranteed a good marriage when they left. Anna said nothing of the women outside the palace, or of the opportunities enjoyed by those inside. She never mentioned that Mongkut innovated by allowing his wives who had not had children to leave the palace.
Anna told a sensational and disturbing story about Tubtim, a woman given to the king. Tubtim loves another man and escapes the palace to be with her lover. The king is enraged. The couple are discovered and dragged back to the palace to be punished. Anna pleads eloquently for clemency, but the furious king will not relent. So angry is he with Anna's "interfering" that he has the couple burned to death in front of Anna's house.
No other European or Thai writers living in Bangkok at the time mention this incident. I don't think the incident with Tubtim happened. I think Anna made it up.
For Anna, it seems, the world had two hearts: a (western) heart of light and a (non-western) heart of darkness, and Siam embodied the latter. She contrasted England (which she hardly knew) "in her light and glory, her civilization, refinement and power" with "benighted Siam still bound in the iron fetters of paganism, idolatry, and slavery". Inside the Mongkut she portrayed beat these two hearts; he was, she complained, "a provoking melange of antiquarian attainments and modern skepticism". But the most provoking thing about this complex man may be that he was reducible to neither stereotype: the despotic oriental barbarian or the enlightened rational scientist. He combined aspects of both in a way which ceded superiority to neither.
If Leonowens found Mongkut provoking, he reciprocated the feeling, referring to her, memorably, as "one great difficulty". When she left the kingdom, he told her, "I am often angry on you, and lose my temper, though I have large respect for you. But nevertheless you ought to know you are difficult woman, and more difficult than generality". She professed herself unable to reply as her eyes filled with tears. Here, as in some other instances, she betrayed her affection for a man who, even she had to admit, was "the most remarkable of the Oriental princes of the present century, - unquestionably the most progressive of all the supreme rulers of Siam".
Nevertheless, leave the kingdom she did, pleading ill health. She later wrote that the king would only let her leave if she promised to return, and that she made that promise. She went to England to pick up Avis, leaving Louis in a boarding school while she and her daughter sailed for New York. It seems likely that she had no intention of returning to Siam.
Life After Siam
Anna had no money, and needed to do something to support herself and her children, so she began to write about her experiences in Siam for the magazine "Atlantic Monthly". Interest in the Orient was high, and her articles were very popular. So she decided to write a book.
In 1870 Anna published the aforementioned English Governess, which quickly became a bestseller. Her Harem, published 3 years later, was also a huge success. Anna was a star. She went on public speaking tours around North America and made a good living.
Meanwhile, her daughter Avis married a banker who was posted to Halifax. Anna moved there with them. She was active in the city, starting a Shakespeare society, a book club, and co-founding the Victoria - now Nova Scotia - School of Art and Design. She continued to travel, write, and speak throughout her life, and died in Montreal in 1915, aged 84 (or 81).
The Transmogrification of Anna
Anna's books were popular, I think, because she reflected the mood of her times. She emphasized the splendid barbarity of the Siamese court, reinforcing a popular view of the Orient as beautiful and wealthy but also savage and ripe for colonization. She portrayed the king as a petty tyrant often screaming with rage, uncivilized and out of control. And who was the spirit of civilization in Anna's vision? Why, Anna herself! Classic orientalism, but with a twist, for Anna, of course, was a woman. The first wave of the women's movement was gathering force, and Anna was there to ride it.
After Anna's death her story took on a life of its own. First, Margaret Landon rewrote Anna's books into Anna and the King of Siam. She used personal narratives and left out the long descriptive passages about culture and ceremony. She played up Anna's role as a civilizer, considering her a "key figure" in Siam's modernization. And it was Landon that introduced a suggestion of romance between Anna and Mongkut.
Landon's book formed the basis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I". The first movie based on the story, a drama, was released in 1946 and starred Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in his screen debut. The movie, like the books it was based on, took liberties with the truth. Anna is at the king's side as he dies, and after his death Anna stays, pacing the garden with the new king Chulalongkorn, presumably plotting the future of the kingdom.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein version came to the screen in 1956 and starred Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in a career-defining role. Brynner had previously played the king on the stage and now won an Oscar for this performance. The movie was banned in Thailand, in part because it hints at romance between the king and the teacher in a famous dance scene.
In 1999 Disney released an animated children's version of the "The King and I". Again, the story is embellished and reworked. In this version, polygamy is absent: the king has only one wife and perhaps a dozen children. The prince Chulalongkorn loves a servant - Tubtim! - but his father disapproves. Everyone says such a love is forbidden. (Actually, kings can choose any partners they like.)
Disney released another version of the movie in 1999, this one with Jodie Foster and the Hong Kong Star Chow Yun-Fat. The most recent Mongkut speaks Thai with a Chinese accent, but at least he's Asian. This movie has no singing, but does have some dancing. It highlights a romance that both Anna and Mongkut know cannot be because of their different circumstances and beliefs. It has a very disturbing version of the immolated Tubtim story.
The director wanted to film this version in Thailand, and changed the script five times in response to Thai demands. However, he was still denied permission to film in the kingdom, and the movie was shot in Malaysia. There were a number of things the Thai objected to, but perhaps the largest stumbling block was the romance. The Film Board felt that it was insulting to the memory of their beloved king, who was 58 and much married when he met Anna.
So was there any romance between Anna and the king? Anna never said so; it was Landon who introduced the idea, having the king give Anna a ring which she eventually returned. Interestingly, however, a number of western biographers of Mongkut thought the romance a "laughably implausible" idea which showed "improbably deplorable taste". Anna, they opine, was "second-hand goods whose charms, if any, were rapidly fading". I find these comments rather insulting. After all, Anna was handsome, strong-willed, and clever, qualities Mongkut appreciated.
So, no, there was no real romance, but the idea that there could have been is not so absurd. There could have been. But there wasn't.
To Sum Up
In the end, then, what is Anna's legacy?
She introduced Siam to a western public who didn't know much about it...
but she didn't always tell the truth.
She made a good living for herself and her children...
by telling stories the public wanted to hear.
She believed in freedom for all women...
but she judged others by her own standards.
She was a shrewd business woman and self promoter.
Anna's quotes are from her two books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem, (re-issued as Siamese Harem Life). Mongkut's letter to Anna, as well as some of the things he said about her, can be found in The English Governess.
Details of Anna's early life were gleaned from W. S. Bristowe's excellent account of Louis Leonowens' life and relations with Chulalongkorn, titled Louis and the King of Siam. Information about her later life is from Leslie Smith Dow's rather derivative Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond the King and I.
Michael Smithies' article "Anna Leonowens: 'School Mistress' at the Court of Siam" (in Adventurous Women in Southeast Asia: Six Lives, edited by J. Gullick) contains some rather harsh criticisms of Anna, including the charge of plagarism. The cruel comments about Anna's unattractiveness come from Smithies, and from John Blofeld's biography, King Maha Mongkut of Siam. See my node on Mongkut for other sources about him, and visit Chulalongkorn too, while you're at it.
For a remarkably thorough web-based resource run by Thai students, which contains excellent information on Anna and the king, visit