Anna Leonowens is world famous as the governess in the court of Siam due to the popularity of the musical The King and I. Many people believed that they were watching a true story. Not only regarding the antics of the king but also the importance of Anna in the court. The film, starring Yul Brynner, so insulted the Thai people, that it was banned from being shown in Thailand on grounds of historical and cultural distortions. Now, a remake of the movie is being planned. Can Hollywood make amends for past misdeeds or will history repeat itself?
Anna Leonowens and the King - FACT OR FICTION? New light has thrown doubt on the authenticity of not only the story but also of Anna's background.
|Her name was Anna Crawford, born in Wales, on November 5, 1834.||Her name was Anna Edwards, born in India in 1831.|
|Her father was Captain Thomas Crawford, who died during a Sikh uprising in India when Anna was just 6 years old. Anna and her sister were at school in Wales at the time.||Her father was Thomas Edwards, a cabinet maker who enlisted in the Bombay infantry. He died three months before Anna was born and her mother re-married to a corporal in the Engineers. Anna and her sister were sent to school in England.|
|Anna and her sister moved to India on the completion of their education at the age of 14 or 15.||Anna and her sister returned to India on the completion of their education at the age of 14 or 15.|
|Her step-father wanted to marry her off to a man twice her age. To escape this situation, she went on a long tour of the middle east with the Reverand Percy Badger.||Her step-father wanted to marry her off to a man twice her age. To escape this situation, she went on a long tour of the middle east with the Reverand Percy Badger.|
|On her return she eloped, at the age of 17, to marry an army captain named Thomas Leonowens.||On her return she married, at the age of 18, a clerk called Thomas Leon Owens.|
|They lived in London for a while before, Thomas Leonowens, now a major, was posted to Singapore. Whilst there, Anna learned that the money that her father had left her had all been lost during the Indian Mutiny.||Thomas Owens had difficulty in keeping a job and they moved around a lot. They had two children called Louis and Avis.|
|Major Thomas Leonowens suffered sunstroke on a tiger hunt and later died leaving Anna with two small children and no money.||Thomas Owens died of apoplexy in Penang, Malaya. Anna moved to Singpaore.|
|Friends rallied round to help and she began a small school for officers' children. Her daughter Avis was sent back to England. Whilst in Singpaore she received the invitation to go to Siam (now Thailand).||Friends rallied round to help and she began a small school for officers' children. Her daughter Avis was sent back to England. Whilst in Singpaore she received the invitation to go to Siam (now Thailand).|
It proved easy for historians to demolish Anna as a trustworthy historian because both her books are filled with glaring errors. Even the title of the most famous is inaccurate for, as King Mongkut's correspondence makes clear, she was hired not as a governess, which implies a broad range of duties, but merely as a teacher of English. In the text she makes elementary blunders regarding Thailand's past, offers an explanation of buddhism that is either hopelessly confused or shamelessly lifted from other writers, and identifies a picture of Prince Chulalongkorn (her most prominent student) as that being of a princess. Though she claims to have spoken fluent Thai, most of her the examples she offers are incomprehensible even with all possible allowances made for clumsy transliterations.
Her worst errors occur in The Romance of the Harem, when, one historian suggests, "her store of pertinent facts were running low." In this she claims that the king threw wives who displeased him into underground dungeons below the Grand Palace and, most horrific, that he ordered the public tourture and burning of the consort and a monk with whom she had fallen in love, a spectacle Anna claims to have witnessed with her own eyes.
But there were no underground dungeons at the Grand Palace or anywhere else in Bangkok, and there could not have been in that watery soil. Nor was there any public burning, or, if there was, it escaped the attention of every other foreign resident, many of whom also wrote accounts of the same period. Anna simply invented such tales, perhaps to add some spice to what would otherwise have been a rather tepid work, just as she also exaggerated her own influence.
The Truth About Anna
Anna claimed she was born in Wales in 1834, which would have made her 28 when she arrived in Bangkok in 1862. Though not wealthy, her family was distinguished; her father was an army captain and her mother came from an ancient Welsh family. When Anna was six, she and a sister were left behind while her parents were posted to India where, shortly afterwards, her father was killed in battle on the northwest frontier.
Anna said she completed her education in Wales and at the age of 14 or 15 sailed for India. There an unpleasant surprise awaited in the form of a new stepfather to whom she took an intense dislike. One reason was he wanted to marry her off to a wealthy merchant twice her age, while she in turn had fallen in love with a dashing young army officer named Thomas Leonowens. To escape the situation she went on a long tour of the Middle East with a well-known scholar, the Reverend Percy Badger, and his wife, presumably friends of the family. According to the distinguished traveller Dame Freya Stark, who wrote an introduction to a 1952 edition of The Romance of the Harem, she returned from the trip "with a character already strongly formed, both for tolerance and independence." She was independent enough to defy her stepfather and elope at the age of 17 with her young officer. They were blissfully happy, despite the death of their first two children in infancy; two more, a boy and a girl, were born and survived in London, where the couple lived for three years.
In 1857, Leonowens, by then a major, was posted to Singapore and it was there Anna heard the bad news that a small fortune left to her by her father had been lost in the collapse of a bank during the Indian Mutiny. Worse was to come. A year late Major Leonowens suffered a stroke on a tiger hunt and died, leaving her with two small children and no money. She started a small school, bringing in enough to send her daughter Avis back to England but not much more. A new challenge came with an invitation from King Mongkut to go to Siam. With characteristic pluck off she went, accompanied by her young son, Louis. A refined gentlewoman, marked by personal loss but brave and determined to bring light to less fortunate lives - that is the image of Anna drawn by herself, by all the actresses who have portrayed her on stage and screen and even by historians who accuse her of wilfully maligning a great man.
The first person to question the image, almost accidentally, was Dr W.S. Bristowe, an academic whose specialty was spiders but who also wrote on other subjects. Dr Bristowe was a frequent visitor to Thailand and in the early 1970s he decided to writer a biography of Louis T. Leonowens, founder of the company that still bears his name. Not many people read the book that resulted, entitled - perhaps inevitably - Louis and the King of Siam, which is unfortunate, for Dr Bristowe's deft detective work on Anna's past revealed an extraordinary story.
It began in London with a routine check to ascertain the exact date of Louis' birth. He found nothing, either for Louis or for Avis. Nor, when he looked further, could he find anyone named Thomas Leonowens who had served in the army, in either India or England. Nor did the army know anything about the man Anna claimed to be her father. Strangest of all, Welsh archives failed to yield any mention of Anna herself.
Dr Bristowe now set about tracking down the elusive Anna with all the enthusiasm he normally gave to a rare species of spider. Here is what a diligent search of Indian office records eventually revealed. Anna was born, not in Wales but in India, not in 1834 but in 1831. Her father was Thomas Edwards, a cabinet-maker from Middlesex who enlisted in the Bombay infantry and went to the subcontinent in 1825. There he married Mary Anne Glassock, the daughter of a gunner in the Bengal Artillery and a local mother who, in all likelihood, was Eurasian.
The couple had two daughters, Eliza and Anna, and Thomas died three months before the birth of the latter, leaving his wife penniless. When Anna was two months old, her mother remarried, this time to a corporal who not long afterwards was demoted to private. Here the record blurred, but somehow - possibly through the assistance of a charity - Anna and Eliza were sent to her father's relations in England, where they presumably received an education.
They returned to India in their early teens and entered a home which Dr Bristowe claims "must have appalled them," for the life of a private soldier at the time was a squalid one of "drunkeness and fornication." Eliza was married off at 15 to a 38-year-old sergeant and something similar was clearly planned for Anna. Instead, at 14 she went off to the Middle East with the Reverend Badger. How she met the clergyman (later to become a noted oriental scholar) is uncertain.
Anna married when she was 18, not to a dashing young officer but to a 22-year-old clerk whose name was not Leonowens but Thomas Leon Owens. He did not seem to hold any job for long and the couple moved about frequently. Dr Bristowe never did pinpoint the precise birth dates of Louis and Avis and finally concluded they must have taken place on board a ship. At some other unknown time Leon Owens changed his name to Leonowens, and the doctor did find a record of his death - of apoplexy - in Penang, on May 8, 1859, where he was listed as a "hotel keeper."
According to Dr Bristowe, Anna was already busily burying her past when she arrived in Singapore, so successfully not even her own children penetrated her disguise. Among other things, this required a complete break with her sister Eliza back in India, a step she may have been doubly glad she took - given the social prejudices of the time - if word ever reached her that Eliza's eldest daughter married a Eurasian named Pratt. As thorough as ever, Dr Bristowe traced that family, too, and made the engaging discovery the youngest child of the union - that is, Anna's grand-nephew - became the actor Boris Karloff, of Frankenstein fame.
There is also evidence to suggest Anna's performance may not have been flawless during her five years in Bangkok. The capital's small British colony of merchants and consular officials never asked her into their circle, despite her position at court. The only respectable foreigners willing to take her at her word were American Protestant missionaries, particularly the formidable Dr Dan Beach Bradley, their senior member. These men and women gave her the friendship she needed so badly.
The inventions and distortions of her books may have been partly designed to boost sales, as Prince Damrong, one of King Mongkut's sons, suggested to Dr Bristowe in a 1930 meeting. It could also be argued, they were also possibly aimed at convincing her missionary friends that Anna Leonowens was truly a virtuous Christian woman, worthy of their trusting kindness.
After leaving Thailand, Anna spent some years in America, where her books were written, and eventually settled in Canada with her daughter. There she died in 1915 at the ripe old age of 85 (not 82 as her family and friends thought), still playing, by now with accomplished skill, a role that might have challenged the best of her later impersonators.
Sources of information: Background historical research was mainly done by Dr. W.S. Bristowe, an English scholar. The above information was extracted from an article written by William Warren and published in the fascinating Traveller's Tales - Thailand. A copy of this book can be bought on-line at a discounted price at amazon.com Visit the website now for a review and the latest price.
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