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Real Anna Leonowens
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.
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:
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.
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)?
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.
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".
This is what Anna Leonowens wrote about the Crown Prince, Prince Chualalongkorn:
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):
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.
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,
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 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
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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