How much of the story from The King and I and Anna and the King is an accurate biography of Anna Leonowens?
Anna and the King, the 1999 version of the story of Anna Leonowens' six years at the Court of Siam, is, like the movie and stage musical The King and I, based on a 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. Jodie Foster stars as this version of Anna Leonowens.
That novel, in turn, is based on the reminiscences of Anna Leonowens herself. A widow with two children, she had served as governess or tutor to the sixty-four children of King Rama IV or King Mongkut. Upon returning to the West (first the United States, later Canada), Leonowens, as had many women before her, turned to writing to support herself and her children.
In 1870, less than three years after leaving Thailand, she published The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Its immediate reception encouraged her to write a second volume of stories of her time in Siam, published in 1872 as The Romance of the Harem -- clearly, even in the title, drawing on the sense of the exotic and sensational which had captivated the reading public.
The 1999 movie version of Anna Leonowens' service in Thailand, calling itself a "true story," has been denounced for its inaccuracies by the current government of Thailand.
That's not new, though. When Leonowens published her first book, the King of Siam responsed, through his secretary, with the statement that she "has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory."
Controversial from the start, this story nevertheless continues to thrive: contrasting old and new, East and West, patriarchy with women's rights, freedom and slavery, fact mixed with exaggeration or even fiction.
On this site, you'll find more on Anna Leonowens: a biography, some 1870's reviews and notices of her work, links for more information around the web. Perhaps this will help shed some light on another historical woman of mystery in history.
Text © Jone Johnson Lewis. All rights reserved.