“Hers was a spirit broad awake—to action, to literature, languages, beauty in people and in scenes.”
— Anna Fysche, granddaughter of Anna Leonowens
Uncovering the true story
Anna Leonowens’ epic biography expanded far beyond her five years as a royal tutor in Siam. She went on to establish a prolific career as a journalist, writer, lecturer, teacher, social activist, feminist, and matriarch. Her personal philosophy–a call for open-mindedness and respect for all people, regardless of religion, gender or race–was heavily influenced by her five years in Siam. She memorialized her years in the royal palace in two books, which in turn inspired a best-selling novel, Broadway musical, and various film and television adaptations.
Although her accounts of her years in Siam were commercially successful, modern historians have identified glaring historical inaccuracies in these memoirs. The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem include sprawling descriptions and fascinating anecdotes, but Leonowens fictionalized major parts of the story, as well as her own biography. She modified dates, anecdotes, descriptions, even her age, to create a romanticized, public image of her life. It took decades for biographers to finally uncover the true story behind the woman who tried so hard to recreate herself, but recent investigations into Anna’s life have provided glimpses into the real woman who sparked so many storytellers’ imaginations. Her true story contrasts with her memoirs–she was not educated in a boarding school in Wales, nor was her stepfather an abusive husband or her mother a British gentlewoman–but her moral outlook and ideals ring true throughout her biography, fictionalized and true.
Although she would later be immortalized for her years in Siam, Anna Harriet Edwards was raised just across the continent, the daughter of an English soldier and his wife in Bombay, India. Born on November 26, 1831 to Mary Anne and Tom Edwards, Anna would never know her father, who died weeks before she was born. Her stepfather, Patrick, was a also in the service, so most of Anna’s childhood consisted of traveling from barrack to barrack. Although she would later attest to a pure English ancestry, Anna was most likely Anglo-Indian, the descendant of a European soldier and his Indian wife. Anna spent her childhood surrounded by children of similar backgrounds, as well as Indian locals and European families, attending school and socializing with young people of mixed backgrounds and races. Although these early years were undoubtedly difficult (hardly akin to attending boarding school in Wales, as her memoirs claimed), they shaped her moral and philosophical outlook for years to come. She learned a variety of languages, including Indian and sanskrit, and developed a passion for education.
Anna was seventeen when she married the only love of her life, Thomas Louis Leon Owens. The two were married on Christmas day, 1849. After mourning the death of two children, they had a daughter and son, Avis and Louis. Anna’s idyllic world crashed when Tom died in 1859, leaving his wife hardly any money and no means of supporting herself and two children–so later that year, Anna Leonowens, an English officer’s widow, arrived in Singapore with a fabricated past, hoping to create a fresh start for her family. When she stepped off the boat in Singapore, the Anna whom audiences recognize today was born: a proper Englishwoman, unfamiliar and yet enchanted with her new Eastern surroundings. Although the real Anna probably never set foot in England before visiting Siam for the first time, this persona gave her the status she needed to ensure a prosperous life for Avis and Louis.
Anna and Louis, then five years old, arrived in Bangkok in March 1862, where they would stay for more than five years. Avis was sent to boarding school in England, and Anna’s longing for her, as well as the loss of her other two children, helped establish a strong bond with the maternal women of King Mongkut’s harem. Anna forged special relationships with the princes and princesses as well, and she stayed true to her promise that she would not impart Christianity upon the royal family–but her relationship with King Mongkut was much more complex. As Anna’s biographer aptly described the teacher and king:
They were both moral people, dedicated to walking the paths of virtue, though each had a different idea of what virtue entailed…but each had a firm belief in the Divine, in the sacredness of life, and in the idea that a virtuous life required ceaseless effort to improve oneself and to serve the public good.
Anna admired and respected Siam’s culture and religion; in her subsequent writings, she never criticized these aspects of the country, not even the polygamy which other Christian missionaries despised. She was, however, vehemently opposed to slavery. She felt a strong connection with the wives and concubines within the King’s harem, and even dedicated her second book to them. While she respected King Mongkut’s politics and intellectualism, she struggled to look past the strongly ingrained dependance on slavery and misogyny. Overall, however, hers and Louis’ five years in Siam were positive; she was the only person to spend any extended amount of time inside the royal palace, and she successfully instructed her beloved pupils in language, humanities, and science.
When Anna left Siam, she had every intention of returning in six months. The King’s unexpected death in 1868, however, was reason enough for her to move on to a new phase in her life. She sent Louis to boarding school, and traveled with Avis to America, where she used her experiences in Siam as the basis for a successful writing and scholarly career. Along with three books on her experiences in the King’s harem, she traveled the country, lecturing and teaching about religion, feminism, and respect for Eastern cultures. She became a respected member of the lirarery and scholarly community–she even got to meet one of her greatest idols, Harriet Beecher Stowe. She eventually moved to Canada, where she helped organize the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and was active in the local and National Council of Women. By the time she died in 1915, she was an admired, if not yet immortalized, proponent of human rights and education.
Anna never returned to Siam, although she did reconnect with her former pupil, now King of Siam, Chulalongkorn, in 1897. The two met in England, and he expressed his gratitude and affection for his teacher, but he also “expressed great sorrow that she had pictured his father as a ‘wicked old man’ in her books” (Margaret Landon papers, 4:3). The musical and film adaptations of Anna’s writings are still banned in Thailand, where the government claims they misrepresent King Mongkut, who, along with his son, is credited for protecting his country from European imperialism. Contrary to these and other contemporary critiques of the musical adaptation, however, Anna’s attitude toward her employer was never condescending or elitist. She respected the King in a number of ways, particularly for his intelligence, dedication to improved education, and passion for his Eastern culture. It was Anna’s strong antislavery opinions that caused the largest rift in her relationship with King Mongkut.