Anna Leonowens


Anna Leonowens : biography

26 November 1831 – 19 January 1915

Anna Leonowens met Chulalongkorn again when he visited London in 1897, thirty years after she had left Siam, and the king took the opportunity to express his thanks in person.

Anna Leonowens died on 19 January 1915, at 83 years of age."Deaths", The Times (21 January 1915); pg. 1; col A. She was interred in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

Literary career

By 1869, Leonowens was in New York City, where she opened a school for girls for a brief period on Staten Island, and began contributing travel articles to a Boston journal, Atlantic Monthly, including "The Favorite of the Harem", reviewed by the New York Times as "an Eastern love story, having apparently a strong basis of truth".’September Magazines’, New York Times (2 September 1872), p. 2. She expanded her articles into two volumes of memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which earned her immediate fame but also brought charges of sensationalism. In her writing, she casts a critical eye over court life; the account is not always a flattering one, and has become the subject of controversy in Thailand; she has also been accused of exaggerating her influence with the king.Henry Maxwell, Letter to the Editor: "The King and I", The Times (19 October 1953), p. 3, col. F.Direck Jayanama, Letter to the Editor: "’The King and I’ Foreign Policy of a Siamese Ruler", The Times (26 October 1953), p. 11, col. F. There have also been claims of fabrication: the likelihood of the argument over slavery, for example, when King Mongkut was for 27 years a Buddhist monk and later abbot, before ascending to the throne. It is thought that his religious training and vocation would never have permitted the views expressed by Leonowens’ cruel, eccentric, and self-indulgent monarch.

Leonowens was a feminist and in her writings she tended to focus on what she saw as the subjugated status of Siamese women, including those sequestered within the Nang Harm, or royal harem. She emphasised that although Mongkut had been a forward-looking ruler, he had desired to preserve customs such as prostration and sexual slavery which seemed unenlightened and degrading. The sequel, Romance of the Harem (1873), incorporates tales based on palace gossip, including the king’s alleged torture and execution of one of his concubines, Tuptim; the story lacks independent corroboration and is dismissed as out of character for the king by some critics. A great granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya (b. 21 May 1934), stated in a 2001 interview: "King Mongkut was in the monk’s hood for 27 years before he was king. He would never have ordered an execution. It is not the Buddhist way." She added that the same Tuptim was her grandmother and had married Chulalongkorn.Nancy Dunne, "’Life as a royal is not for me’: A Thai princess tells Nancy Dunne the truth about ‘The King and I’ and how she prefers a simple life in the US", Financial Times (25 August 2001), p. 7. (He had 36 wives.)

While in the United States, Leonowens also earned much-needed money through popular lecture tours. At venues such as the house of Mrs. Sylvanus Reed in Fifty-third Street, New York City, in the regular members’ course at Association Hall, or under the auspices of bodies such as the Long Island Historical Society, she lectured on subjects including "Christian Missions to Pagan Lands" and "The Empire of Siam, and the City of the Veiled Women"."Mrs. Leonowens’ First Lecture", New York Times (20 October 1874), p. 4."Amusements", New York Times (31 October 1871), p. 4."Lectures and Meetings to Come", New York Times (16 November 1874), p. 8."A Boston Letter", Independent (10 October 1872), p. 6. The New York Times reported: "Mrs. Leonowens’ purpose is to awaken an interest, and enlist sympathies, in behalf of missionary labors, particularly in their relation to the destiny of Asiatic women." She joined the literary circles of New York and Boston and made the acquaintance of local lights on the lecture circuit, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book whose anti-slavery message Leonowens had brought to the attention of the royal household. She said the book influenced Chulalongkorn’s reform of slavery in Siam, a process he had begun in 1868, and which would end with its total abolition in 1915.David Feeny, "The Decline of Property Rights in Man in Thailand, 1800–1913", Journal of Economic History, Vol. 49, No. 2, The Tasks of Economic History (June 1989), p. 293. Meanwhile, Louis had accumulated debts in the U.S. by 1874 and fled the country. He became estranged from his mother and did not see her for 19 years.