Immortalized by Deborah Kerr, Anna Leonowens – yes, that Anna, the one who taught the children of the King of Siam – was, without a doubt, a remarkable character. Unfortunately, her story remains buried in Susan Morgan’s overwritten Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the ‘King and I’ Governess.
Previous biographies have presented Leonowens as a genteel, upper-class British woman who faced tragic loss before she became the beloved governess to the children of the King of Siam. Leonowens herself held fast to those claims throughout her life.
But Anna’s “factual origins,” Morgan explains, were hardly genteel or even very British. She was born Anna Harriett Emma Edwards on November 26, 1831, in Ahmednuggar, India, to a British soldier and his teenaged Anglo-Indian orphan wife. Leonowens grew up in Army barracks amid a multicultural mix of many races and languages.
Leonowens’ life-long comfort with the unfamiliar and her sense of inherent human equality began here. Yet she was quick to suppress all traces of that humble past as she strove to gain access as an equal beyond Bombay’s protective Anglo-Indian community.
As a young widow with two small children, Leonowens spent five years as governess in the Siamese court. Unlike her predecessors, she did not attempt to convert the “heathen” royals. (Ironically, Margaret Landon, whose book “Anna and the King of Siam” introduced Leonowens to the West in 1944, was exactly one of the proselytizing missionary wives whom Leonowens herself avoided.)
Leonowens left Siam at the age of 35 and sailed to America by way of Britain (touching the “homeland” for the first time) where she would reinvent herself again as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. Her so-called memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870) and “The Romance of the Harem” (1873), charmed readers but were unreliable at best and downright insulting at worst.
After a decade in New York, Leonowens immigrated to Canada to join her daughter and spent the rest of her life raising and educating what became a brood of eight grandchildren.
Despite the decade that Morgan, who is a professor of English at Miami University, invested in researching “Bombay Anna,” the results are tedious and often repetitive.
The story of this fascinating maverick deserves better.
Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.