Thursday, May 21, 2020

Is Anna and the King of Siam a True Story?

(And surprise! A giveaway.)

While watching the original Anna and the King of Siam movie from 1946, I began to wonder how much of the story was true. It was based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel by the same title. Later, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the musical, The King and I, which began playing on broadway in 1951 and has been revisited in many places. The latest movie was Anna and the King, in 1999. There was even an animated version! The tale is a much-beloved story, with it's elegant costumes and hint of romance, but how much is from real-life?

Anna Leonowens {PD} 
Margaret Landon was a Presbyterian missionary who wrote the best-selling novel, Anna and the King of Siam, published in 1944. She ministered in Thailand with her husband and four children as the head of a school. While she was there she read all of the literature she could find about the country which was at the time called Siam. After reading about the English governess who came to teach the children of King Mongkut, she became more intrigued and she contacted Anna Leonowens’ granddaughter to learn more about the woman who’s supposed story spoke to her heart.The movie, Anna and the King of Siam, was based on this novel. But just who was Anna based on?

Born in Ahmednagar, Bombay Presidency, India, Anna Harriette Leonowens was born plain Ann Harriet Emma Edwards to a Sergeant Thomas Edwards from a British regiment, and her mother, Mary Ann Glascott, in 1831. As an adult, Anna would claim that she was born into a genteel Welsh family in 1834, but there are no records of her birth in Caernarfon. 

In her books, she promoted her father to captain and gave him the surname of Crawford. Either way, her father died when she was a tiny baby, leaving her mother widowed, with two little daughters. Soon after, Mrs. Edwards married Patrick Donohoe, a corporal who would later be demoted to private. 

King Mongkut on his throne, 1851, {PD}
Some researchers believe that Donohoe was an ill-tempered man who may 
have abused his stepdaughter and tried to force her to marry a much older man. 

While Anna asserted that she was sent away to English boarding school for much of her education, she actually attended a school for mixed race children of British soldiers. Indeed, there is speculation that her grandmother was of Indian or partial Indian heritage. This may be part of why she changed the story of her childhood into one of fiction, to give herself and her children better opportunities at the time, because of prejudice. While living in Siam, her sister wrote to her and she threatened suicide if any of her family tried to contact her again. Thus, she cut off ties with her family of origin so as not to be associated with them.

When she was just seventeen, Anna fell in love with Thomas Leon Owens. When they married, his middle and last names were combined to create the surname Leonowens. He was a clerk and they moved to Perth in Australia. He had several jobs, before they moved to Penang in Malaysia where Thomas worked in a hotel. They had four children together, two of which survived past toddlerhood, a daughter, Avis, and their son, Louis. Anna’s husband died an untimely death of a stroke in 1859 while they were living in Penang. 

Mongkut, King of Siam, and Prince Chulalongkorn,
in naval uniform, 1866. {PD}
She moved to Singapore and tried to run a school for the children of British nationals. It was here she began to reinvent her life. She claimed that Thomas was an army officer who died while hunting tigers! The school failed, but the connections she made helped her secure her position in Siam’s royal court. 

Mongkut, King of Siam, was looking for a proper English education for his, at the time, 60 children, as well his wives and concubines, without an attempt to convert them to Christianity. He’d been a Buddhist monk for 29 years before becoming king. In 1862 Anna took up his offer and moved to Siam with her son, Louis. She sent Avis to a boarding school in England. 

She spent almost six years there, also working as the king’s language secretary before she went on leave to England for her health. While she was away the king and his son, Prince Chulalongkorn, contracted malaria. The prince recovered, but the king did not, dying in 1868. 

Portrait of Anna Leonowens by Robert Harris. {PD}
When Anna corresponded with the prince about returning, he did not request her return, but did maintain a polite correspondence with her for some time.

Needing to support herself and her children, three years later she wrote her memoirs, The English Governess in the Siamese Court in 1870 and The Romance of the Harem, in 1873. They were both bestsellers at the time and gained her some renown.

However, King Mongkut’s family didn’t appreciate her portrayal of the king. He was considered kind and progressive in Siam, not the unkind and lecherous man that Anna Leonowens portrayed.

For example, the story of the concubine, Tuptim, in her second book, which was portrayed also in Anna and the King of Siam, who was accused of a adultery with a Buddhist monk. There was no dungeon underneath the palace where she would have been tortured and people were not burned to death in Siam. This part of the story was possibly based on gossip of something that had happened before Anna was even present in the Siamese court.

Also, Tuptim was actually one of Chulalongkorn's wives, not his father's. Tuptim’s own granddaughter asserted that her great-grandfather, a former Buddhist monk and abbot, wouldn’t have acted in such a way since it would have conflicted with his beliefs. 

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence, 1951, {PD}
King Chulalongkorn responded to her accounts of the Siamese court by saying she, “has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory.” And many years later when he saw Anna again in England asked her why she portrayed his father the way she did. Still, she seemed to look at the harem with concern, as women who were lacking rights. She was a woman from a Christian background, allowed to move freely amidst a backdrop of polygamy and women trapped in a golden cage of sorts.

Anna also greatly exaggerated her influence over King Mongkut. He was inclined toward the doing away with prostration before the king, a reform that his son later carried out. There is speculation as to whether or not abolition of slavery carried out by Chulalongkorn was because of Anna's influence. She did help the older king with his correspondence which would have likely included letters to Queen Victorian and President Abraham Lincoln. There may have been a mutual respect between the king and Anna, but no romance as it is alluded to on stage and film.

Anna did go on to become known for her travel writing. She was gifted in languages and taught Sanskrit. Her daughter, Avis, married a banker and moved to Nova Scotia. With the family’s money troubles at an end, this became Anna’s home base. She was a feminist who supported women’s suffrage. She followed her daughter to Montreal, where she died in 1915 at the age of 83.

By Roderick Eime from Australia - Louis Leonowens,
CC BY 2.0,
Her son, Louis, did grow up and not die as a child, as seen in the movies. He was educated alongside the children of the Siamese court and finished his education in Europe. In 1881, at the age of 25, he joined the royal cavalry in Siam, under the commission of King Chulalongkorn. He became involved in the teak trade and in 1905 started his own business. This company bears his name yet today. 

While Anna Harriette Leonowens seemed to have been greatly influenced by the royal court of Siam, she likely placed her spin on her time there, perhaps exaggerating what she saw through her eyes. The movie, Anna and the King of Siam was based on a novel that was a fictional account of Anna's writings. I wonder how much of Anna's writings were also fictional. She did make up or exaggerate many things in her own life to protect and/or advance herself and her children. There are conflicting speculations. Some of her biographers believe she portrayed the king the way she did because of cruelty at the hands of her stepfather which affected how she saw men. Or was she just a shrewd writer, creating an exciting account of her time in an exotic country, that readers longed for? We may never know.

What about you? What is your favorite version of Anna's story of her time with the King of Siam? Answer with a comment below for a chance to win the five novel/novella ebook collection of Christian contemporary romances Love is in the Air. You have through this Saturday, May 23, and please give your email address so I can contact you. Thank you!

Kathleen Rouser is an award-winning and multi-published author of historical Christian romance. She is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers.

Kathleen has loved making up stories since she was a little girl and wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She’s in the grip of God’s grace and is a fan of the three Cs—cats, coffee, and chocolate.

The mother of three, who is a former homeschool instructor, mild-mannered dental assistant, and current Community Bible Study kids’ teacher, lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of thirty-some years, and two sweet cats who found a home in their empty nest.

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  1. I enjoyed this post. My favorite version is the 1990's remake of Anna and the King of Siam. Al this research was fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Should i be embarrassed to say that I have never seen this movie? I haven't read the book either. I am full up with e-books so if you draw my name please draw another. Thanks for the post. I guess Anna wasn't too concerned with truth-telling as a character trait, huh?

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Connie R. You shouldn't be embarrassed. I just figured
      with all the remakes, most people have seen one version or the other. Sorry that
      my giveaway is only in e-book format at this time.

  3. Thank you, Cindy, for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. I've seen several screen versions of Anna's story. And when I was a teen I I recall reading a biography about her, but I'm not sure it's still in print. Fascinating post, Kathy.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I had no idea when I started researching how much information, and some of it conflicting, I'd run into. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. My favorite is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical movie! I have enjoyed playing musical arrangements from this musical in a community band as well.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. You must be quite talented to be able to play the music!

  6. The winner of the ebook boxed set, Love is in the Air, is Jubilee Writer! Congratulations!
    I will contact you soon.

  7. Excellent and really interesting post. I always take fictional portrayals of history with a huge pinch of salt and Anna Leon Owens own count is certainly one for the salt, in huge portions. To be fair the later film does show the King in a better light, especially his concern as a father and his grief in the loss of a child. The Tuptin tale was still there, but it wasn't as dramatic. Yet, she was still executed. In the musical she is not killed but the King does threaten to beat her. Her lover drowned in the river. Anna doesn't understand the Harem and the power and political intrigue which went on there. She is typical of the xenophobia of her day. I believe Anna exaggerated to make money and played to a xenophobic audience. My favourite is the musical, although I enjoyed the 1999 film as well. This is the first time I have seen the 1948 film. Years ago in the 1960s there was also a children's series, which was wonderful.

  8. As it is 2022 I imagine you've already sent out the prize. I just wanted to say that I Loved this story growing up and have seen the versions starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn and Yule Brenner and Deborah Kerr. I'll have to look into the 19999 version. Thank you for the truthful take on this Woman. Given the times she lived in I can't say I blame her. Don't most Authors exaggerate fact from fiction. I'm glad her son lived though it was always so sad when he dies in the movie.