The king and a lie

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.

- Niels Bohr

It's been a "true" story that has fascinated people since the 1870s. A young Englishwoman travels to a foreign country to become governess to the children of a king. Unlike the people around him, this governess refuses to behave like a subject, and tells the king exactly what she thinks. He, instead of being offended, is intrigued by her, and learns from her. One senses that if not for the time and the place, romance could blossom.

This story, of course, is the one known to most people by its past musical title - "The King and I" - or its current movie title - "Anna and the King" - which are both based on the writings of Anna Leonowens.

If Leonowens were alive today, she would no doubt be tickled pink that her "true" story is still so popular - considering she made most of it up or lifted it from other sources.

Yet it would be wrong to think of Anna as a liar or a plagiarist. Her real story is every bit as interesting - and more inspiring - as the one she made up.

The source materials for the three movie versions made to date are two books by Leonowens - "The English Governess at the Court of Siam" (1870) and "Romance of the Harem" (1873) - and a 1943 book about these books called "Anna and the King of Siam," written by Margaret Landon. These books chronicle Anna's time as governess to the Siamese Royal Court.

Unfortunately, even the title of the first and most popular book doesn't reflect the real truth - Anna was never governess to the the King's children, a position that implies great responsibility. She was merely their teacher of English.

Indeed, so many facts about her story were fabricated or altered to suit her tale that it was easy for later historians to determine that she was lying because Anna seldom made sure that the lies actually connected to each other.

As well, she lifted sections from other people's books when she wrote about Siamese traditions.

Anna's father was not a captain in the English Army who was killed during a Sikh uprising when Anna was 6, as she wrote, but a cabinetmaker who enlisted in the Bombay infantry and died three months before Anna was born.

Her husband was not an army captain named Thomas Leonowens, but a clerk named Thomas Leon Owens, who had trouble keeping a job, changed his name to Leonowens for unknown reasons, and moved his family all over the British Empire

While the fictional husband died on a tiger hunt in India, the real husband, by then a hotel keeper, apparently died of illness in Malaya.

Anna then moved to Singapore, where she received the invitation to Siam. But she had so successfully buried her past that not even her two children knew the real story of their mother's life.

It's after her "adventures" in Siam that Anna's life comes into sharper focus.

She moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1876. Thanks to her fame as a writer, she quickly propelled herself into the upper reaches of Halifax society. To her credit, she used this newfound influence in the service of many good causes. She founded the Victorian School of Art, now known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, still one of Canada's finest art schools. She joined the Halifax and National Councils of Women, and was a champion of education for women and children. She was also an outspoken advocate of suffrage.

But the truth eventually caught up with her. By 1897, many in Halifax had seen through her deceptions and she was slowly becoming an outcast in local society. So she moved to Montreal, where she charmed people all over again. She died in 1915 and is buried in Mount Royal cemetery in the heart of the city. One last interesting connection to history - Anna's sister, Eliza, had a grandson who became quite well-known for role playing as well. He was the actor Boris Karloff.

It can be argued that it really doesn't make any difference that Anna's story is so fabricated - why let the facts get in the way of a good story. And after all, when was the last time that Hollywood really cared about whether or not a "true" story was actually based on a "true" story.

But as I grew up in Halifax and learned the truth about Anna, I often thought that her real story would make a much more interesting film -- a strong-willed, determined woman born into near-poverty, who used her wits to take care of herself and her children. She traveled the globe after she was widowed, and settled in a young country, where she became an influential citizen and created an institution that continues to thrive.

For me, Anna's life verifies scientist Niels Bohr's observation that sometimes the opposite of a profound truth is not a lie, but another profound truth.

And who knows, Anna might be secretly pleased that people know her real story and her real accomplishments. After all, with her gift for the gab, as we say in Nova Scotia, imagine the stories she could tell about what really happened to her.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Web site, He grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his family still lives.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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