Ever seen the musical The King and I? Or watched Jodie Foster in Anna and the King of Siam? Sure these films are different, but they both portray Anna Leonowens as a plucky Christian English governess alone in the Siamese court, battling fearlessly for enlightened principles against a barbarous autocracy, and guiding Siam (Thailand) along the path to reform.
This sort of imagery built upon that in the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam, based on Anna’s own writings about her Siam sojourn in the 1860s. All the above were exercises in myth-making, as revealed in a carefully-researched biography by Alfred Habegger called Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).
For her self-crafted persona, Anna concealed that she was no ‘lady’ in the sense used then, but rather the daughter of an English sergeant and a half-Indian woman, who attended a charitable school in India. She married an Irishman, following him through doomed career moves in Singapore, Australia and Penang until he died penniless. For a while, she tried to run a school in Singapore before scoring the job of governess to King Mongkut’s many progeny. Cutting all ties with her family (she had previously quarreled with a number of them), she set off for Bangkok with her two kids and created a new identity for herself as a pure English lady.
Despite conflict and breakdowns, Anna displayed true grit as well as arrogance, surviving there for five years. However, her influence on king and country was far less than she made out. She was not, for instance, the architect of slavery abolition in the kingdom. And to this day Thais vehemently object to King Mongkut being portrayed as a bit of a boof and to suggestions Anna played a key role in Siam’s modernisation.
After Siam, Anna moved to North America, where she re-tooled her identity as a writer and lecturer. For many years, she enjoyed fame based on her mythologised life, negative tales (and outright lies) about King Mongkut, his hareem and Siam in general. In the process, Anna shamelessly plagiarised other people’s writings and boldly faced down anyone who fingered her falsehoods. She was active and apparently respected in the fields of education and women’s rights, dying at the age of 88 in Canada.
So, a remarkable woman who showed real pluck in handling the cards life dealt her, but also a fraud to some extent. Nevertheless, Anna’s self-styled legend seems likely to endure in popular imagination.