Dates: November 5, 1834 - January 19, 1914/5
Known for: adaptation of her stories into movies and plays including Anna and the King of Siam, The King and I
Also known as: Anna Harriette Crawford Leonowens
Many know the story of Anna Leonowens quite indirectly: through the film and stage versions of the 1944 novel which was based on Anna Leonowens' own remiscences, published in the 1870s. These reminiscences, published in two books The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem, were themselves highly fictionalized versions of just a few years of Anna's life.
Leonowens was born in India (she claimed Wales). When she was six, her parents left her in England at a girls' school run by a relative. Her father, an army sergeant, was killed in India, and Anna's mother didn't return for her until Anna was fifteen years old. When Anna's stepfather tried to marry her to a much older man, she moved into the home of a clergyman and traveled with him. (Some sources say the clergyman was married, others that he was single.)
Anna then married an army clerk, Thomas Leon Owens or Leonowens, and moved with him to Singapore. He died, leaving her in poverty to raise their daughter and son. She started a school in Singapore for the children of the British officers, but it failed. In 1862, she took a position in Bangkok, then Siam and now Thailand, as a tutor to the children of the King, sending her daughter to live in England.
King Rama IV or King Mongkut followed tradition in having many wives and many children. While Anna Leonowens was quick to take credit for her influence in the modernization of Siam/Thailand, clearly the King's decision to have a governess or tutor of British background was already part of a beginning of such modernization.
When Leonowens left Siam/Thailand in 1867, a year before Mongkut died. She published her first volume of reminiscences in 1870, the second two years later.
Anna Leonowens moved to Canada, where she became involved in education and in women's issues. She was a key organizer of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and was active in the local and National Council of Women.
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.
Perhaps because her story is virtually the only one in the west to speak of the Siamese court from personal experience, it continues to capture the imagination. After the 1940s novel based on her life was published, the story was adapted for stage and later film, despite continuing protests from Thailand of the inaccuracies included.
Anna Leonowens on this site
- Anna and the King of Siam: Margaret Landon, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. 1999. (Originally published 1944.)
- Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond 'the King and I': Leslie Smith Dow, 1999.
- The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Anna Leonowens, 1999. (Originally published 1870.)
- The Romance of the Harem: Anna Leonowens, Susan Morgan editor. 1991. (Originally published 1872.)
- Katya & the Prince of Siam: Eileen Hunter, 1995. Biography of King Mongkut's grandson and his wife (Phitsanulokprachanat and Ekaterina Ivanovna Desnitsky).
More women's history biographies, by name: