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The Real Anna Leonowens

Anna Leonowens

Many of us have seen the musical "The King and I", or the re-make of it (not a musical) called "Anna and the King". Both films are banned in Thailand. And many of us have read the novel "Anna and the King" by Margaret Landon. But what do we know about the real Anna Leonowens? And how can we get to know more about her? That is the question I will try to give the beginning of an answer to, on this page.


Anna Leonowens has lived in the Court of King Rama IV (King Mongkut) between 1862 and 1868. There is not the slightest doubt about that. She has written her own memoirs about this stay and they have been published. They are still available in Thailand and, as far as I am aware of, they have never been banned there.
She went to Siam with her son Louis, who is never mentioned by this name in her book, though. He is indicated with words like "boy" or the like.

The memoirs of Anna Leonowens

If you want to know more about the real Anna, these memoirs should be a reliable source, although some people think she made up lots of what she wrote! I bought the book at DK Books on Siam Square in Bangkok, several years ago, but every year I come in Bangkok I see it in some bookshops. Try a bit, and you will (probably) find it.

Otherwise go to the bottom of this page and buy the book and some related items right from this site.

As a new service we offer you the complete plain Gutenberg Project text as a download (with instructions how to read it), also at the bottom of this page.

The book pictured above is called

"The English Governess at the Siamese Court being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok", with Illustrations from photographs presented to the author by the King of Siam.

It is a facsimile from an English edition of 1870.
On the outside cover (as pictured above) the title is a bit different:

The Original Anna and the King of Siam (From the English Governess at the Siamese Court)

Do not expect an easily written novel with all kind of intimate details. These are the memoirs of an English Lady, published in 1870. So you could compare the style of writing with that of the novels written in the same period. The reason why I recommend it is, that it is authentic and it even contains some literal citations of documents, belonging to Anna Leonowens. I will also give some citations by Anna Leonowens herself below, so this gives you a chance to know what to expect of this book.

For instance: You will find here the literal text of the invitation by King Mongkut to Anna Leonowens, to come to Bangkok in order to teach the Royal Children:

English Era, 1862, 26 February

To Mrs. A.H. Leonowens:
MADAM: 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) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature than new religions. We beg to invite you to our royal palace to do your but endeavorment upon us and our children We shall expect to see you here on return of Siamese steamer Chow Phya. We have written to Mr. William Adamson, and to our consul at Singapore, to authorize to do best arrangement for you and ourselves. Believe me
Your faithfully,
(Signed) S.S. P. P. MAHA Mongkut

What I like especially in the above letter is the emphasis the King lies on the fact that he is not interested in any conversion to Christianity. I think this is a wise and not unnecessary remark. In the past representatives of several European Countries had sent missions to Siam, with the (main) purpose to convert the people over there to Christianity.

Underneath is the picture of King Mongkut himself, made during the stay of Anna Leonowens in Bangkok. Whatever impression all the other books, films and musicals may have given you, maybe you should realize that King Mongkut was 60 years old at the time Anna Leonowens was the teacher of his Royal Children.

Portait of King Mongkut

And how did Anna feel about King Mongkut? Was there any romance between her and the King? This is very unlikely. In the first place in the Harem of King Mongkut there lived about 600 (!) women in those days, so why should he be interested in another one (if he had time at all for her)?

King Mongkut with his favorite wife

Above King Mongkut is pictured with his favorite wife (this picture cannot be enlarged by clicking on it). This picture -which is not in the book mentioned above- was taken around the time Anna Leonowens stayed in Bangkok.
Let us now see what Anna wrote about King Mongkut. This is one of several fragments about him only! Note that she writes about "the late King", because these memoirs ware written after King Mongkut had died and his son King Rama V, better known as King Chualalongkorn was King of Siam then.

Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, late Supreme King of Siam, it may safely be said (for all his capricious provocations of temper and his snappish greed of power) that he was in the best sense of the epithet, the most remarkable of the Oriental princes of the present century, -unquestionably the most progressive of all the supreme rulers of Siam, of whom the native historians enumerate not less than forty, reckoning from the founding of the ancient capital (Ayudia or Ayuo-deva, 'the abode of gods') in AD1350. He was the legitimate son of the king P'hra Chow-P'hra Pooti-lootlah, commonly known al Phen-den-Klang; and his mother, daughter of the youngest sister of the King Somdetch P'hra Bouromah Rajah Pooti Yout Fah, was one of the most admired princesses of her time, and is described as equally beautiful and virtuous. She devoted herself assiduously to the education of her sons, of whom the second, the subject of these notes, was born in 1804; and the youngest, her best beloved, was the late Second King of Siam.

This is a description with high respect of King Mongkut, be it that Anna also writes about some characteristics she did not like about him at all. But this is certainly not the description of somebody who was involved in some romantic affair! In fact nowhere in the more than 300 pages of Anna Leonowens' book there is the slightest hint towards a romantic affair. So let us forget about that in the first place! And remember -again- that King Mongkut was around 60 years old in this period of time.
Of course this is a pity for makers of films and musicals. There always should be some romantic thread in the story. In real life things are not like in novels, musicals and Hollywood pictures, however. The above account is the real-life written account of King Mongkut, as given by Anna Leonowens.

Now that we can forget about love-affairs and other Hollywood amendments, let us turn to the work as a teacher of Anna Leonowens. She taught the Royal Children, among them the (then) Prince Chualalongkorn, later King Rama V. Below (left hand side) is a picture of this prince, and next to him a picture of one of the other pupils of the "Royal School".

Prince Chualalongkorn A pupil of the Royal School

This is what Anna Leonowens wrote about the Crown Prince, Prince Chualalongkorn:

The Prince Somdetch Chowfa Chualalonkorn was about ten years old when I was appointed to teach him. Being the eldest son of the queen consort, he held the first rank among the children of the king, as heir-apparent to the throne. For a Siamese, he was a handsome lad; of stature neither noticeably tall nor short; figure symmetrical and compact, and dark complexion. He was, moreover, modest and affectionate, eager to learn, and easy to influence.

Although in her book Anna Leonowens suggests that she spoke Thai fluently, I dare to doubt this, according to my own experience. Here is what Anna wrote about the Thai People and the Thai Language (quite a long citation):

The fact is remarkable, that though education in its highest degrees is popularly neglected in Siam, there is scarcely a man or woman in the empire who cannot read and write. Though a vain people, they are neither bigoted nor shallow; and I think the day is not far off when the enlightening influences applied to them, and accepted through their willingness, not only to receive instruction from Europeans, but even to adopt in a measure their customs and their habits of thought, will raise them to the rank of a superior nation.
The language of this people advances but slowly in the direction of grammatical perfection. Like many other Oriental tongues, it was at first purely monosyllabic; but as the Pali or Sanskrit has been liberally engrafted on it, polysyllabic words have been formed. Its pronouns and particles are peculiar, its idioms few and simple, its metaphors very obvious. It is copious to redundancy in terms expressive of royalty rank, dignity -in fact, a distinct phraseology is required in addressing personages of exalted station; repetitions of word and phrase are affected, rather than shunned. Sententious brevity and simplicity of expression belong to the pure spirit of the language, and when employed impart to it much dignity and beauty; but there is no standard of orthography, nor any grammar, and but few rules of universal application. Every Siamese writer spells to please himself and the purism of one is the slang or gibberish of another.

As you can read from this citation, Anna did not think badly of the Thai people and of the Thai Language! But she resented several things. For one thing she was disgusted about the fact that the King had a (very large) Harem. Read what Anna Leonowens wrote about the women who were part of it:

How I have pitied these ill-fated sisters of mine, imprisoned without a crime! If they could but have rejoiced once more in the freedom of the fields and woods, what new births of gladness might have been theirs, -they who with a gasp of despair and moral death first entered those royal; dungeons; never again to come forth alive! And yet have I known more than one among them who accepted her fate with a repose of manner and a sweetness of smile that told how dead must be the heart under that still exterior.

As you may well remember from the films and musical, at a certain moment a girl is being offered "as a present" to the King. Anna describes this event and even shows us a picture of it. So it may very well have happened that way:

A girl as a gift

This brings me to a second book Anna Leonowens has written about her time at the Royal Court of Siam. That one is called:
"The Romance of the Harem".
I have not read it, but I should mention it for the sake of completeness. You can also buy that one at the bottom of this page.

Letter by King Rama V (1) Letter by King Rama V (2) Letter by King Rama V (3) Letter by King Rama V (4)

A very interesting document, also printed in the book pictured at the top of this page (and probably also printed in the one you can buy at the bottom of this page) is a letter King Chualalongkorn (King Rama V) wrote to Anna Leonowens, after she had left Thailand and he had become King, after King Mongkut had died. It is a letter from a pupil to his former teacher. You can read it page by page by clicking the small images above. (As far as the writing seems not horizontal, you have to blame me, because I used a small hand-scanner).

Before I list the books you can buy right now, I wish to tell a few more things about Louis Leonowens, Anna's son.
He went back to Bangkok and started a trading company in timber. Up to the present day you can see the building of the Company, not very far from the Oriental Hotel.

The Louis Leonowens Company

The Company provided the wood for the Giant Swing, next to Wat Suthat, free of charge, as a donation to that Temple. For that reason a small model of the Giant Swing can be seen in the garden of the Oriental Hotel, up to the present day. Don't forget to take a look at it (as well as at the real Giant Swing!).

Click here for a more critical view (from Thailand) on Anna Leonowens

Books by and about Anna Leonowens

You can download from this site a plain text Gutenberg Project edition of "The English Governess at the Siamese Court". It is a .ZIP file, called 8egrl10.zip and it contains the original Gutenberg text 8egrl.txt.
You can read it as a text file, which is not very convenient, or you can use the excellent program yBook to read it.

All the further books shown below are offered in association with Amazon.com.

If you click one of the books, you will be sent to the site of Amazon.com where you can decide if you want to buy the books or not.
Some of these books ara only avialable second hand!

In the first place there are the memoirs of Anna Leonowens.

Then there is a second book by Anna Leonowens herself, called The Romance of the Harem.

A related book is "Anna Leonowens: A life beyond The King and I" by Leslie Smith Dow

Another book, written in the time when Anna stayed in Siam, is Description of the Thai Kingdom of Siam, by Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (and translated into English).

And if you prefer a romanticized edition after all, you could try The Story of Anna and the King, by Cecilia Holland, which has received good reviews. Or you can buy the older novel by Margaret Landon, called "Anna and the King of Siam". Both novelists claim to have used the memoirs.

The DVD with the movie "Anna and the King" with Jodie Foster and Yun-Fat Chow is also available (Region 1 encoding only!)

There is also a DVD (Region Coding 1) of the original 1956 movie The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (although the singing for Deborah Kerr was done by Marni Nixon).

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