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Anna Leonowens (26 November 1831–19 January 1915) was a Britishmarker travel writer, educator and social activist, known for teaching the wives and children of Mongkut, king of Siammarker, and for co-founding the Nova Scotia College of Art and Designmarker. Leonowens's experiences in Siam were fictionalised in Margaret Landon's 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam and in various films and television miniseries based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 hit musical The King and I.

Early life and family

Anna Leonowens was born Anna Harriette Edwards in Ahmadnagarmarker, India on 26 November 1831. She was the second daughter of Sergeant Thomas Edwards of the Sappers and Miners, a former Londonmarker cabinetmaker, and his Anglo-Indian wife, Mary Anne Glasscott, daughter of a lieutenant in the Bombay Army. In later life Leonowens was estranged from her family and took pains to disguise her humble origins by writing that she had been born a Crawford in Caernarfonmarker and giving her father's rank as captain. By doing so, she protected not only herself but her children, who would have greater opportunities if their mixed-race heritage remained unknown. Investigations uncovered no record of her birth at Caernarfon, news which came as a shock to the town that had long claimed her as one of its most famous natives.

Leonowens' father died before she was born, and her mother married an Irish soldier, Corporal Patrick Donohoe of the Engineers, who was later awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in Bombaymarker during the Indian Mutiny. In 1845 her 15-year-old sister, Eliza Julia Edwards, married Edward John Pratt, a 38-year-old Britishmarker civil servant who had served in the Indian Navy. Eliza and Edward had a son, Edward John Pratt, Jr., who in 1887, with his wife, Eliza Sarah Millard, had a son named William Henry Pratt, better known as film star Boris Karloff. Because Pratt Sr. was also an Anglo-Indian, Leonowens never approved of her sister's marriage, and her disconnect from the family was so complete that decades later, when a Pratt relative contacted her, she replied threatening suicide if he persisted.

Leonowens' relationship with her stepfather Donohoe was not a happy one, and she later accused him of putting pressure on her, like her sister (with whom she also fell out), to marry a much older man. In 1847 the family went to Adenmarker, to where Donohoe had been seconded as assistant supervisor of public works. Here Leonowens was taught by the resident chaplain and orientalist, the Revd. George Percy Badger, and his wife Maria, a missionary schoolmistress. The Badgers recognised the girl's aptitude for languages and in 1849 they took her with them on a tour through Egyptmarker and Palestine.

Marriage and widowhood

At the end of 1849 Anna Edwards returned with her family to India, where in Poona she married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens or Leonowens (2 May 1828 - 7 May 1859) (a civilian clerk rather than the army officer of her romantic memoir), over the objections of her stepfather and mother, with whom she broke off all contact. The young couple took ship first to Perth, Western Australiamarker, where Leonowens, at this time going by her middle name, Harriette, tried to start a school for young ladies, and then to Singaporemarker and Penangmarker, where her husband found work as a hotel keeper, only to die of apoplexy in 1859 at the age of 31, leaving Leonowens an impoverished widow. Thomas Leonowens was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Penang. Of their four children, the two eldest had died in infancy. To support her surviving daughter Avis and son Louis, Leonowens again took up teaching, and opened a school for the children of British officers in Singaporemarker. While the enterprise was not a financial success, it established her reputation as an educator.

Royal governess

In 1862 Leonowens accepted an offer made by the Siamesemarker consul in Singapore, Tan Kim Ching, to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, king of Siammarker. The king wished to give his 39 wives and concubines and 82 children a modern Western education on scientific secular lines, which earlier missionaries' wives had not provided. Leonowens sent her daughter Avis to school in Englandmarker, and took her son Louis with her to Bangkokmarker. She succeeded Dan Beach Bradley, an Americanmarker missionary, as teacher to the Siamese court.

Leonowens served at court until 1867, a period of nearly six years, first as a teacher and later as language secretary for the king. Although her position carried great respect and even a degree of political influence, she did not find the terms and conditions of her employment to her satisfaction, and came to be regarded by the king himself as a 'difficult woman and more difficult than generality'.

In 1868 Leonowens was on leave for her health in England and had been negotiating a return to the court on better terms when Mongkut fell ill and died. The king mentioned Leonowens and her son in his will, though they did not receive the legacy. The new monarch, fifteen-year-old Chulalongkorn, who succeeded his father, wrote Leonowens a warm letter of thanks for her services. He did not invite her to resume her post but they corresponded amicably for many years. Chulalongkorn made reforms for which his former tutor claimed some of the credit, including the abolition of the practice of prostration before the royal person.

Literary career

By 1869 Leonowens was in New Yorkmarker, and began contributing travel articles to a Bostonmarker journal, Atlantic Monthly, including 'The Favorite of the Harem', reviewed by the New York Times as 'an Eastern love story, having apparently a strong basis of truth'. She expanded her articles into two volumes of memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which earned her immediate fame but also brought charges of sensationalism. In her writing she casts a critical eye over court life; the account is not always a flattering one, and has become the subject of controversy in Thailandmarker; she has also been accused of exaggerating her influence with the king.

Leonowens was a feminist and in her writings she tended to focus on what she saw as the subjugated status of Siamese women, including those sequestered within the Nang Harm, or royal harem. She emphasised that although Mongkut had been a forward-looking ruler, he had desired to preserve customs such as prostration and sexual slavery which seemed unenlightened and degrading. The sequel, Romance of the Harem (1873), incorporates tales based on palace gossip, including the king's alleged torture and execution of one of his concubines, Tuptim; the story lacks independent corroboration and is dismissed as out of character for the king by some critics. A great granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya (b. 21 May 1934), stated in a 2001 interview: 'King Mongkut was in the monkshood for 27 years before he was king. He would never have ordered an execution. It is not the Buddhist way.' She added that the same Tuptim was her grandmother and had married Chulalongkorn. (He had 36 wives.)

While in the United States Leonowens also earned much-needed money through popular lecture tours. At venues such as the house of Mrs. Sylvanus Reed in Fifty-third Street, New York City, in the regular members' course at Association Hall, or under the auspices of bodies such as the Long Island Historical Societymarker, she lectured on subjects including 'Christian Missions to Pagan Lands' and 'The Empire of Siam, and the City of the Veiled Women'.'Mrs. Leonowens' First Lecture', New York Times (20 October 1874), p. 4. The New York Times reported: 'Mrs. Leonowens' purpose is to awaken an interest, and enlist sympathies, in behalf of missionary labors, particularly in their relation to the destiny of Asiatic women.' She joined the literary circles of New York and Boston and made the acquaintance of local lights on the lecture circuit, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book whose anti-slavery message Leonowens had brought to the attention of the royal household, and which she said influenced Chulalongkorn's reform of slavery in Siam, a process he had begun in 1868, and which would end with its total abolition in 1915.

Later years

Leonowens resumed her teaching career and taught daily from 9 AM to 12 noon for an autumn half at the Berkeley School of New York at 252 Madison Avenue, Manhattanmarker, beginning on October 5, 1880; this was a new preparatory school for colleges and schools of science and her presence was advertised in the press.

Leonowens visited Russiamarker in 1881 and other European countries, and continued to publish travel articles and books. She settled in Halifaxmarker, Nova Scotiamarker, Canadamarker, where she again became involved in women's education, and was a suffragette and one of the founders of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Designmarker. After nineteen years, she moved to Montrealmarker, Quebecmarker.

Leonowens's daughter Avis married Thomas Fyshe, a Scottish banker who ended the family's money worries, while her son Louis returned to Siammarker and became an officer in the Siamese royal cavalry. He married Caroline Knox, a daughter of Sir Thomas George Knox, the British consul-general in Bangkokmarker (1824–1887). Under Chulalongkorn's patronage, Louis Leonowens founded the successful trading company that still bears his name.

Anna Leonowens met Chulalongkorn again when he visited London in 1897, thirty years after she had left Siam, and the king took the opportunity to express his thanks in person.

Anna Leonowens died on January 19, 1915, at 83 years of age. She was interred in Mount Royal Cemeterymarker in Montrealmarker.

Anna Leonowens in fiction and film

Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944) provides a fictionalised look at Anna Leonowens's years at the royal court, developing the abolitionist theme that resonated with her American readership. In 1946 Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson adapted it into the screenplay for a dramatic film of the same name, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. In response Thai authors Seni and Kukrit Pramoj wrote their own account in 1948 and sent it to American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat (1901-1996), who drew on it for his biography Mongkut, the King of Siam (1961). Moffat donated the Pramoj brothers' manuscript to the Library of Congressmarker in 1961.

Landon had, however, created the iconic image of Leonowens, and 'in the mid-20th century she came to personify the eccentric Victorian female traveler'. The novel was adapted as a hit musical comedy by Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I (1951), starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, which ran 1,246 performances on Broadwaymarker. In 1956 a film version was released, with Deborah Kerr starring in the role of Leonowens. Revived many times on stage, the musical has remained a favourite of the theatre-going public. However the humorous depiction of Mongkut as a polka-dancing despot is condemned as disrespectful in Bangkok, where the Rodgers and Hammerstein film was banned by the present monarch, Bhumibol. The king and his entourage said that from what they could gather from the reviews of the musical, the characterisation of Mongkut seemed '90 percent exaggerated. My great-great-grandfather was really quite a mild and nice man.'

In 1972 Twentieth Century Fox produced a 13-part American television adaptation for CBS, with Samantha Eggar taking the part of Leonowens and Brynner reprising his role as the king. Landon charged the makers with 'inaccurate and mutilated portrayals' of her literary property and sued unsuccessfully for copyright infringement. In 1999 an animated version of the musical was released by Warner Bros. Animation. In the same year Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat starred in a new feature-length cinematic remake entitled Anna and the King. One Thai critic complained that the film-makers had made Mongkut 'appear like a cowboy'; this version was also banned by censors in Thailand.

See also



  • Bristowe, W. S. Louis and the King of Siam, Chatto & Windus, 1976, ISBN 0-7011-2164-5
  • Dow, Leslie Smith. Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond The King and I, Pottersfield Press, 1992, ISBN 0-919001-69-6
  • Morgan, Susan. Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess, University of California Press, 2008 ISBN 978-0-520-25226-4
  • Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj. The King of Siam speaks ISBN 9748298124

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