Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess

Synopsis

If you thought you knew the story of Anna in The King and I, think again. As this riveting biography shows, the real life of Anna Leonowens was far more fascinating than the beloved story of the Victorian governess who went to work for the King of Siam. To write this definitive account, Susan Morgan traveled around the globe and discovered new information that has eluded researchers for years. Anna was born a poor, mixed-race army brat in India, and what followed is an extraordinary nineteenth-century story of savvy self-invention, wild adventure, and far-reaching influence. At a time when most women stayed at home, Anna Leonowens traveled all over the world, witnessed some of the most fascinating events of the Age of Empire, and became a well-known travel writer, journalist, teacher, and lecturer. She remains the one and only foreigner to have spent significant time inside the royal harem of Siam. She emigrated to the United States, crossed all of Russia on her own just before the revolution, and moved to Canada, where she publicly defended the rights of women and the working class. The book also gives an engrossing account of how and why Anna became an icon of American culture in The King and I and its many adaptations.

Excerpt

I first read Anna Leonowens’s 1873 The Romance of the Harem in 1982, shortly before my first visit to Thailand. I came across the book while browsing through the stacks in the Echols Collection at Cornell University. I remember my astonishment and delight at reading it. It is a preposterous book, a collection of interwoven stories really, extreme in content and style, and wildly sentimental. My tastes are generally quite otherwise; the writer I most admire is Jane Austen. Yet I found The Romance full of passion and interest. And, clearly, not quite true. It is not a novel. I can fall back on memoir as its genre, though the narrative’s focus is not on Anna but on other women. Is it fictionalized fact or factualized fiction? This unsettling yet stimulating book comes closest to nineteenth-century American “romance.”

Eager to bring the book back in print, and thus to encourage other readers to find ways to approach it, in 1991 I edited a paperback edition of The Romance of the Harem, published by the University Press of Virginia in its Victorian Literature and Culture series. During the process of preparing that edition, I discovered just how little was known about Anna Leonowens. There were contemporaneous reviews of her three books; those in the United States typically positive (the New York Times, in February 14, 1873, found that “this tropical book disarms criticism”), while the English reviews were generally more hostile (the Athenaeum found it full of “inexcusable error”). But the reviews did not address her life. Then in 1944 Anna burst onto the stage of twentieth-century American culture as the real-life heroine of Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam. The rest, as they say, is media history.

Landon’s book and its many adaptations, including one of the major icons of the American musical, The King and I, have stood for the past sixty years as a sort of biography of Leonowens. Most of the material that it was based on was invented, in part because so little material was actually available, Anna . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.