Vintage Reads #16 – The English Governess at the Siamese Court

price190The third Lazarus Longman novel – Onyx City – deals primarily with Victorian London but there is a substantial subplot that is set in Siam (or Thailand as it is called today). In the writing of it I pursued firsthand accounts of nineteenth century Siam as well as researching the country’s complex history and religious fluctuations between Hinduism and Buddhism. The journals of Anna Leonowens, published in 1870, tell a story familiar by other names to modern readers. Fictionalised in 1944 by Margaret Landon as the bestselling Anna and the King of Siam, the film version came out in 1946 and the story was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a Broadway musical in 1951 by the name; The King and I.

Anna Harriett Edwards was born in 1831 in India and showed an aptitude for languages at an early age. After travelling through Egypt and Palestine under the tutelage of a chaplain and his wife, Anna returned to India and married Thomas Leonowens. The pair moved between Australia, Singapore and Malaysia and had four children, the eldest two dying in infancy. Anna was widowed in 1859 and moved to Singapore where she set up a school for British expats. This brought her to the attention of the Siamese Consul who offered her a job opportunity teaching the many wives, concubines and children of King Mongkut of Siam. Anna sent her daughter, Avis, to boarding school in England and took her son, Louis, with her to Bangkok.

King_Mongkut_and_Prince_Chulalongkorn

King Mongkut and his son and heir Prince Chulalongkorn

Anyone hoping for a romantic adventure as seen in the movies will be in for a disappointment. Anna’s memoirs are more of a look into the customs and history of Siam and its people rather than a day by day account of her personal experiences although there are many amusing anecdotes that tell of her frustration in a court ruled by tradition and oppression. Although free with her criticism of the natives and her despair at their primitive ways, Anna was clearly infatuated with the land and her descriptions of temples, scenery and village life are indispensable to the modern researcher.

Her role at court was somewhat ambiguous and she remains a controversial figure in Thailand to this day. In addition to her duties as governess, Anna was also called upon by the king to translate letters and act as something of a secretary. It is debatable how much of an influence she had on his foreign policy and also on the political reforms of his son and heir which included the abolition of slavery. After King Monkut’s death in 1868, Anna travelled to New York and continued as a teacher and writer. She was a feminist and a suffragist as well as an extensive travel writer. She died in 1915 in Montreal, Canada. There have been many claims of inaccuracies in her descriptions of King Mongkut as well as exaggerations in her writings levelled at her by his descendants.

 

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