Anna Leonowens

Western Teacher in Siam / Thailand

Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in costumes from The King and I, 1956
Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in costumes from The King and I, 1956. 20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Known for: adaptation of her stories into movies and plays including Anna and the King of Siam,The King and I

Dates: November 5, 1834 - January 19, 1914/5
Occupation: writer
Also known as: Anna Harriette Crawford Leonowens

Many know the story of Anna Leonowens quite indirectly: through the film and stage versions of the 1944 novel which was based on Anna Leonowens' own remiscences, published in the 1870s.

These reminiscences, published in two books The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem, were themselves highly fictionalized versions of just a few years of Anna's life.

Leonowens was born in India (she claimed Wales). When she was six, her parents left her in England at a girls' school run by a relative. Her father, an army sergeant, was killed in India, and Anna's mother didn't return for her until Anna was fifteen years old. When Anna's stepfather tried to marry her to a much older man, Anna moved into the home of a clergyman and traveled with him. (Some sources say the clergyman was married, others that he was single.)

Anna then married an army clerk, Thomas Leon Owens or Leonowens, and moved with him to Singapore. He died, leaving her in poverty to raise their daughter and son. She started a school in Singapore for the children of the British officers, but it failed.

In 1862, she took a position in Bangkok, then Siam and now Thailand, as a tutor to the children of the King, sending her daughter to live in England.

King Rama IV or King Mongkut followed tradition in having many wives and many children. While Anna Leonowens was quick to take credit for her influence in the modernization of Siam/Thailand, clearly the King's decision to have a governess or tutor of British background was already part of a beginning of such modernization.

When Leonowens left Siam/Thailand in 1867, a year before Mongkut died. She published her first volume of reminiscences in 1870, the second two years later.

Anna Leonowens moved to Canada, where she became involved in education and in women's issues. She was a key organizer of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and was active in the local and National Council of Women.

While a progressive on educational issues, an opponent of slavery and a proponent of women's rights, Leonowens also had difficulty transcending the imperialism and racism of her background and upbringing.

Perhaps because her story is virtually the only one in the west to speak of the Siamese court from personal experience, it continues to capture the imagination. After the 1940s novel based on her life was published, the story was adapted for stage and later film, despite continuing protests from Thailand of the inaccuracies included.

Bibliography

  • The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Anna Leonowens, 1999. (Originally published 1870.)
  • The Romance of the Harem: Anna Leonowens, Susan Morgan editor. 1991. (Originally published 1872.)
  • Anna and the King of Siam: Margaret Landon, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. 1999. (Originally published 1944.)
  • Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond 'the King and I': Leslie Smith Dow, 1999.
  • Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam: Alfred Habegger. 2014. 
  • Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess : Susan Morgan. 2008.
  • Katya & the Prince of Siam: Eileen Hunter, 1995. Biography of King Mongkut's grandson and his wife (Phitsanulokprachanat and Ekaterina Ivanovna Desnitsky).

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Contemporary Reviews of Leonowens' Book

This notice was published in The Ladies' Repository, February 1871, vol. 7 no. 2, p. 154.    Opinions expressed are of the original author, not of this site's Guide.

The narrative of "The English Governess at the Siamese Court" abounds in curious details of court life, and describes the manners, customs, climate, and productions of the Siamese.  The author was engaged as instructress to the children of the Siamese monarch.  Her book is extremely entertaining.

This notice was published in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, vol. 6, no. 3, March 1871, pp. 293ff. Opinions expressed are of the original author, not of this site's Expert. The notice gives a sense of the reception of Anna Leonowens' work in her own time.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. By Anna Harriette Leonowens. with Illustrations from Photographs presented to the Author by the King of Siam. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co. 1870.

There are no longer any penetralia anywhere. The private life of the most sacred personages is turned inside out, and bookwrights and newspaper correspondents penetrate everywhere. If the Grand Lama of Thibet still secludes himself within the Snowy Mountains, 'tis but for a season. For curiosity of late has cunning grown, and at its own good pleasure spies out the secrecy of every life. This may be Byron adapted to a modern subject, but it is neverheless true. After the New York newspapers have "interviewed" the Japanese Mikado, and have drawn pen-pictures (from the life) of the Brother of the Sun and Moon, who rules the Central Flowery Kingdom, there does not appear to be much of any thing left for the ubiquitous and unconquerable book-making observer. The mystery which has for ages surrounded the existence of Oriental potentates has been the last refuge of falsehood, fleeing from indomitable curiosity. Even this has gone at last -- rude hands having torn away the tantalizing curtains which concealed the dread arcana from the eyes of the profane world -- and sunlight has streamed in upon the astonished inmates, blinking and cowering in their nakedness among the gaudy shams of their languid existence.

Most remarkable of all these exposures is the simple and graphic story of the life which an English governess led for six years in the palace of the Supreme King of Siam. Who would have thought, years ago, when we read of the mysterious, gilded, jeweled palaces of Bangkok, the royal train of white elephants, the awe-inspiring paraphernalia of P'hra parawendt Maha Mongkut -- who would have thought that all these splendors would be uncovered for us, just as a new Asmodeus might take the roofs off the gilded temples and harems, and expose all the wretched contents? But this has been done, and Mrs. Leonowens, in her fresh, lively way, tells us of all she saw. And the sight is not satisfactory. Human nature in a pagan palace, burdened though it may be with a royal ceremonial and covered with jewels and silk attire, is a few shades weaker than elsewhere. The swelling domes, crusted with barbaric pearl and gold, worshiped at a distance by the awe-struck subjects of the mighty ruler, cover as much lying, hypocrisy, vice and tyranny as may have been found in the palaces of Le Grande Monarque in the days of the Montespans, the Maintenons, and the Cardinals Mazarin and De Retz. Poor humanity does not vary much, after all, whether we find it in a hovel or castle; and it is edifying to have the truism so often and abundantly fortified by evidence from the four corners of the globe.

The English governess at the Court of Siam had marvelous opportunities for seeing the whole domestic and interior life of royalty in Siam. An instructor of the King's children, she came to be on familiar terms with the august tyrant who holds the lives of a great nation in his hand. A woman, she was permitted to penetrate into the secret recesses of the harem, and could tell all that was fit to tell of the life of the multitudinous wives of the oriental despot. So we have all the minutia of the Siamese Court, not tediously drawn out, but graphically sketched by an observant woman, and charming from its novelty, if nothing more. There is, too, a touch of sadness in all she says of the poor women who languish out their lives in this splendid misery. The poor child-wife of the King, who sang a scrap of "There is a Happy Land, far, far away;" the concubine, beaten on the mouth with a slipper -- these, and all others like them, are the sombre shadows of the interior life of the royal abode. We close the book, heartily glad that we are not subjects of his Golden-Footed Majesty of Siam.

This notice was published in the Princeton Review, April 1873, p. 378. Opinions expressed are of the original author, not of this site's Expert. The notice gives a sense of the reception of Anna Leonowens' work in her own time.

The Romance of the Harem. By Mrs. Anna H. Leonowens, Author of "the English Governess at the Siamese Court." Illustrated. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co. The remarkable experiences of Mrs. Leonowens at the Court of Siam are related with simplicity and in an attractive style. The secrets of an Oriental Harem are exposed with fidelity; and they reveal wonderful incidents of passion and intrigue, of treachery and cruelty; and also of heroic love and martyr-like endurance under most inhuman tortures. The book is full of matters of painful and tragical interest; as in the narratives about Tuptim, the Tragedy of the Harem; the Favorite of the Harem; the Heroism of a Child; Witchcraft in Siam, etc. The illustrations are numerous and generally very good; many of them are from photographs. No recent book gives so vivid a description of the interior life, customs, forms and usages of an Oriental Court; of the degradation of women and the tyranny of man. The author had unusual opportunities for becoming acquainted with the facts she records.

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