“getting to know you”

I bumped into Anna Leonowens’ hoop skirts several times in my life. My parents had a collection of Broadway cast recordings on vinyl they played on our hi-fi including The King and I  with Yul Brenner and Gertrude Lawrence.

Living in Halifax, I was aware of her influence on the city. NSCAD (Nova Scotia School of Art and Design) was founded in 1887 by Anna and later became the first degree-granting art school in Canada. When  I shared a house with various people, usually at least one had a connection with the school.

During a trip to London in the early 1980s, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in a theater box and watch Yul Brenner perform his iconic role on the stage below.

At grad school, although I didn’t study her writings, I did look at the concept of female imperialism, colonialism and orientalism which frame her writings. (more on this below)

The tag-line, at times, for another blog I posted to from 2009 (when I first said “hello, is anybody out there?” to the internet), until circa 2016, was “my fictional autobiography.” Given the disconnection between what Anna cast as her 19th century life narratives, and perceived realities, (with further fictionalization from the mid-20th century), the subtitle to her life narratives could also be “my fictional autobiography.”

“we kiss in a shadow”

Ann Hariett Emma Edwards was born  on 5 November 1831,  in a British Army barracks in India, three months after the death of her father, Thomas Edwards, a non-commissioned officer.  Her 16-year old Anglo-Indian mother was in a precarious position; she quickly remarried to provide stability for herself and her daughter. Corporal Patrick Donohoe, Royal Engineers kept his family on the move. Ann claimed that her father pressured his daughters to marry older men; her sister married at 15.

On Christmas Day 1849, Ann married Thomas Leon Owens, a paymaster’s assistant; she was 18; he was 25. When Thomas left the military, the couple moved around Southeast Asia and Australia. They were in Malaysia when, in 1859, Thomas suddenly died; Ann was a 27 year-old widow with two children to support.

Six weeks later, Anna Hariette Leonowens arrived in Singapore. Anna invented  her backstory: “[s]he presented herself as 24-year-old Mrs. Leonowens; born in Wales to a prominent family; educated in British boarding schools; disinherited by an evil stepfather; romantically wed to a high ranking British officer who had died tragically at her feet, of heat stroke, following a tiger hunt. She had lost her fortune, she said, and all contact with her birth family.” Joanne Wise,  Nova Scotia Nine: Remarkable Women, Then and Now, Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, p. 12.

She wove this life narrative so well that her children, friends and readers (biographers/authors) believed her “fictional autobiography.” With her elevated “resume,” she secured positions as a private teacher, first with the children of British military officers, then, within the royal court of Siam. (Thailand) Her salary allowed her to live comfortably with her son, Louis, and pay for her daughter, Avis, to attend boarding school in England. But, after 5 1/2 years, the position wore on her “nerves.” She left in 1867, never to return.

However, she was then able to fictionalize her  5 1/2 year stint into two sensational memoirs: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1873) which blended “eyewitness journalism, social criticism, and sensational gossip.” Wise, Nova Scotia Nine, p. 12. These books embraced the concept of “orientalism” – the Western, imperialist vision of an underdeveloped, exotic “other” in Eastern cultures and traditions. An “imaginative geography,” Edward Said posited (Orientalism. 1978), as a colonial construct dividing East from West, arising from western, imperialist, colonialist  authors describing the Eastern world.

Embroidered into Anna’s fictional autobiographies, is her feminism and abolitionism. These concepts impacted how she told the tale of King Mongkut’s many wives and concubines. From the beginning, however, the royal court found her (and later) depictions of King Mongkut and family as negative and flawed.

“shall we dance?”

Anna, after courses on elocution, travels North American – the 19th century version of a book tour; contemporary accounts list her presentations based on her experiences in “the East” as a thorough success. When her daughter, Avis, marries Thomas Fyshe in 1878, Anna joins them in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is when Anna and my paths begin to cross.

In Halifax, Anna felt constrained by her role within society. She wrote an American friend that: “I felt, when in the midst of a grand party of all the grandees here, like giving a wild war whoop, and running amuck … I was burning to do something desperate, to stir up the cold vapid formalism and the empty minutiae of a still more empty life.” Wise, Nova Scotia Nine, p. 12.

She did find ways to do more than simply pour tea for her Haligonian society. She was active within the suffrage movement, the local Council of Women, and other “social welfare” issues, such as  the improvement of conditions for women in prisons and for immigrant women. Her most lasting contribution, however, was her founding of the Victoria School of Art (1887) in honour of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. This school, now the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design (NSCAD University), provided an educational outlet for women, and an economic “engine” for artisans.

Anna continued her journalistic and writing career.  She traveled to Russia as a correspondent; in 1884,  published Life and Travel in India. While not a commercial success as her other books, she did reinforce and codify her backstory. Her final book, Our Asiatic Cousins (1889) was “a progressive plea for cross-cultural understanding,” while still keeping secret her East Indian heritage. Wise, Nova Scotia Nine, p. 13.

When Avis and Thomas moved to Montreal in 1901, Anna joined them. She continued her lobbying for women’s rights, and other social welfare issues. She died there in 1915. Jone Johnson Lewis sums up the echoes of Anna’s life narrative, real and fictional: “While a progressive on educational issues, an opponent of slavery and a proponent of women’s rights, Leonowens also had difficulty transcending the imperialism and racism of her background and upbringing.” Jone Johnson Lewis, “Anna Leonowens Western Teacher in Siam/Thailand”, June 04, 2017, Thought Company.

“I whistle a happy tune”

Margaret Landon, influenced and inspired by Anna’s invented back story, wrote Anna and the King of Siam, in 1944. This book, and Anna’s own writings, have become screenplays and a Broadway musical. So, perhaps you might check out the cinematic versions of Anna’s life narrative; pop the popcorn, clear the floor for dancing and watch:

Anna and the King of Siam: a dramatic version starring Irene Dunn and Rex Harrison released in 1946.

Rogers and Hammerstein created a Broadway musical, The King and I – initially starring Yul Brenner and Gertrude Lawrence, in 1951. The high fidelity record of my childhood.

The musical was adapted for the screen in 1951, starring Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr. This is the version I learned the lyrics to.

In 1972, CBS ran a dramatic version of Anna’s back story: Anna and the King, with Samantha Eggar and Brynner reprising his role as the king. Margaret Landon, appalled at this representation of her book, sued.

In 1999 an animated film using the songs of the musical was released by Warner Bros. In the same year, Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat starred in a new feature-length cinematic adaptation of Leonowens’ books, also titled Anna and the King.

A list of sources culled from the articles/posts I read. These, and Anna’s own writings, may be available on line/for sale.

“If you want more in-depth information about the differences between the story of Anna Leonowens as told either in her own memoirs or in the fictional depictions of her life in Thailand, several authors have dug through the evidence to make the case both for her exaggerations and misrepresentations, and the interesting and unusual life that she did live. Alfred Habegger’s 2014 scholarly study “Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam(published by the University of Wisconsin Press) is probably the best researched. Susan Morgan’s 2008 biography “Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governessalso includes considerable research and an engaging story. Both accounts also include the story of more recent popular depictions of the story of Anna Leonowens, and how those depictions fit in with political and cultural trends.” Jone Johnson Lewis, “What Is the Truth Behind Anna Leonowens’Story?,” ThoughtCo, Mar. 9, 2020.

“Baigent, Elizabeth and Yorke, Lois K. “Leonowens, Anna Harriette (1831–1915).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [online edition, January 2008, retrieved by subscription] oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.dal.ca/view/article/40889

Dow, Leslie Smith. Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond The King and I. Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1991.

Fyshe, Anna Harriet Leonowens. “Anna and I: An intimate portrait of Anna Leonowens by her granddaughter Anna Harriet Leonowens Fyshe.” Chatelaine, January 1962.

Leonowens, Anna Harriette. The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok, 1870. [online] gutenberg.org/ebooks/8678

Leonowens, Anna Harriette. Our Asiatic Cousins, 1889. [online] catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008417668

Local Council of Women, Halifax. The Local Council of Women, Halifax: The First 100 Years,1894–1994. Halifax: Oxford Street Press, 1995. . . .

Yorke, Lois K. “Edwards, Anna Harriette (baptized Ann Harriet Emma) (Leonowens).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1998–2014. [online] biographi.ca/en/bio/edwards_anna_” Wise,  Nova Scotia Nine, p. 13.

So, some escapism, flawed as it is. The royal court and Thailand have always discounted Anna’s version of her life in Siam, and the book and films that spun out from her writings.

A selection of  sources used in creating this post:

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “What Is the Truth Behind Anna Leonowens’ Story?,” ThoughtCo, Mar. 9, 2020 and “Anna Leonowens Western Teacher in Siam/Thailand”, June 04, 2017, Thought Company

Joanne Wise,  Nova Scotia Nine: Remarkable Women, Then and Now, Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, p. 12.

Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of history and historical studies at the University of Toronto,  in conversation on Ideas in the Afternoon, “A 19th Century Travelogue Chronicles a World on the Cusp of Modernity,” CBC Radio 1, 7.2.2020. (A serendip listening experience as he discussed the concepts of “orientalism” and 19th century travel literature/memoirs.)

Joanne Wise,  Nova Scotia Nine: Remarkable Women, Then and Now, Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, pp. 12-13.

Biographies/entries/discussions from sites such as Wikipedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography and Encyclopedia Britannica.