Anna Leonowens : biography
In 1862, Leonowens accepted an offer made by the Siamese consul in Singapore, Tan Kim Ching, to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, King of Siam. The king wished to give his 39 wives and concubines and 82 children a modern Western education on scientific secular lines, which earlier missionaries’ wives had not provided. Leonowens sent her daughter Avis to school in England, and took her son Louis with her to Bangkok. She succeeded Dan Beach Bradley, an American missionary, as teacher to the Siamese court.
Leonowens served at court until 1867, a period of nearly six years, first as a teacher and later as language secretary for the king. Although her position carried great respect and even a degree of political influence, she did not find the terms and conditions of her employment to her satisfaction, and came to be regarded by the king himself as a "difficult woman and more difficult than generality".A. Leonowens, Governess at the Siamese Court, 1954 edn, xv.
In 1868, Leonowens was on leave for her health in England and had been negotiating a return to the court on better terms when Mongkut fell ill and died. The king mentioned Leonowens and her son in his will, though they did not receive a legacy. The new monarch, fifteen-year-old Chulalongkorn, who succeeded his father, wrote Leonowens a warm letter of thanks for her services. He did not invite her to resume her post but they corresponded amicably for many years."Important Trifles", Washington Post (15 May 1887), pg. 4. At the age of 27, Louis Leonowens returned to Siam and was granted a commission of Captain in the Royal Cavalry. Chulalongkorn made reforms for which his former tutor claimed some of the credit, including the abolition of the practice of prostration before the royal person. However, many of those same reforms were goals established by his father.
Anna Leonowens in fiction and film
Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944) provides a fictionalised look at Anna Leonowens’s years at the royal court, developing the abolitionist theme that resonated with her American readership.Laura Donaldson, "’The King and I’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or on the Border of the Women’s Room", Cinema Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Spring, 1990), pp. 53–68. In 1946, Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson adapted it into the screenplay for a dramatic film of the same name, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. In response, Thai authors Seni and Kukrit Pramoj wrote their own account in 1948 and sent it to American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat (1901–1996), who drew on it for his biography Mongkut, the King of Siam (1961). Moffat donated the Pramoj brothers’ manuscript to the Library of Congress in 1961. Entire text online at the Internet Archive.
Landon had, however, created the iconic image of Leonowens, and "in the mid-20th century she came to personify the eccentric Victorian female traveler".Alan Riding, "Globe-Trotting Englishwomen Who Helped Map the World", New York Times (19 August 2004), pg. E1. The novel was adapted as a hit musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I (1951), starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, which ran 1,246 performances on Broadway.Vincent Canby, "Once Again, The Taming of a Despot", New York Times (12 April 1996), p. C1. and was also a hit in London and on tour. In 1956, a film version was released, with Deborah Kerr starring in the role of Leonowens and Brynner reprising his role as the king. Revived many times on stage (with Brynner starring in revivals until 1985), the musical has remained a favourite of the theatregoing public. However, the humorous depiction of Mongkut as a polka-dancing despot, as well as the king’s and Anna’s apparent romantic feeling for each other, is condemned as disrespectful in Thailand, where the Rodgers and Hammerstein film and musical were banned by the Thai Government. The 1946 film version of Anna and the King of Siam starring Rex Harrison as Mongkut was allowed to be shown in Thailand, although it was banned in newly independent India as an inaccurate insult by westerners to an Eastern king and, in 1950, the Thai Government did not permit the film to be shown for the second time in Thailand. The books Romance in the Harem and An English Governess at the Siamese Court were not banned in Thailand. There were even Thai translations of these books by respected Thai writer "Humorist" (Ob Chaivasu).