Good Reading : December January 2009
up close getting to know the real CARON DANN introduces us to someone we may think we know, but whose life was more extraordinary than we could imagine. n the 1870s, a colonial schoolteacher became famous on the US speaking circuit and in literary circles for her engaging memoirs about teaching the royal family of Siam. To Westerners then, Siam (renamed Thailand after World War II), was an exotic, far-off land that few were likely to travel to themselves. By the early 20th century, the teacher, Anna Leonowens, had been largely forgotten, though in Canada, where she spent much of the second half of her long life, she was remembered as a women’s rights campaigner and founder of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design University. Leonowens, who died in 1915 aged 83, would have been flabbergasted to know that in the mid-20th century, her story would be rewritten as one of the most famous musicals of all time, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Until now, biographies of Leonowens Siam Anna I 1920s. She later combined the books into a novel: Anna and the King of Siam was published in 1943 and sold 790 000 copies in the US and Britain alone. The first film, Anna and the King of Siam (1946), starred Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. The Broadway musical came in 1951. The film followed in 1956, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Other versions include a non-musical film, Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, in 1999 (pictured below). In 1985 Queen Sirikit of Thailand saw a Broadway production of The King and I. It is surprising that the Queen agreed to watch the play and to meet and I. King Bhumibol also reportedly has seen the film and, according to William Stevenson in his 2001 biography, The Revolutionary King: The true-life sequel to The King and I, the King remarked that it captured ‘the spirit’ of his great-grandfather, King Mongkut. During the writing of my own book, published last month, Imagining Siam: A travellers’ literary guide to Thailand, I was in touch with Anna Leonowens’s great-grandson, her son’s namesake, Louis T Leonowens. Mr Leonowens is in his 80s and has have been limited to the odd chapter and to Canadian Leslie Smith Dow’s Anna Leonowens: A life beyond the King and I (1991), which did little to answer questions about Leonowens’s mysterious early life. But there is, suddenly, a renewed interest in her: the first scholarly biography was released this year, the excellent Bombay Anna: The real story and remarkable adventures of the King and I governess, by US academic Susan Morgan. Two further biographies are being written: one by US academic Alfred Habegger who visited Western Australia and uncovered interesting information about Anna and her husband Leon’s years there; the other by Canadian archivist Lois K Yorke. The recasting of the 19th-century story for the 20th-century mass-market media began with Margaret Landon, who read Leonowens’s books The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873) while she was a missionary in Bangkok in the 20 goodreading i DECEMBER 2008 / JANUARY 2009 lived in Guatemala since 1954. He has been the Honorary Consul-General of Thailand there for 40 years. He travelled to Thailand in 1997 to a conference of honorary consuls-general and was introduced to King Bhumibol, who was ‘curious about any information I might have about Anna and Louis T’. In the late 1970s it became the cast afterwards: for Anna Leonowens and the various portrayals of her are controversial subjects in Thailand. In fact, The King and I and Anna and the King are banned there, because Thais feel Mongkut is portrayed unfavourably, particularly the untrue claim of a romance between he and the teacher. Yet the Queen said through a spokesperson that The King and I was ‘fun’ and most people realised it was not a true picture of King Mongkut and 19th-century court life. Until then, Western governments had believed Leonowens and The King and I were not subjects that could be brought up in the presence of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. During the royal couple’s 1962 visit to Australia, for example, the ABC banned the broadcasting of music from The King fashionable to deride Anna Leonowens and discount many of her claims and writings after she was exposed as a liar in a 1976 book by a scientist named W S Bristowe. About Anna’s son, titled Louis and the King of Siam, it showed that Anna had fabricated the genteel background she claimed, keeping up the pretence even to her own family. But now, some have begun to realise she wasn’t the villain she has often been portrayed as and that her original work is valuable because of her unique place at the Siamese court. It would be wonderful to see a new film depicting the true story of Anna Leonowens – which, incidentally, is far stranger than the numerous fictions surrounding her memory. Bombay Anna by Susan Morgan is published by University of California Press, rrp $55.95. Imagining Siam by Caron Eastgate Dann is published by Monash Asia Institute, rrp $39.95.