The Lewis Legacy-Issue 84, Spring 2000
In the Footsteps of Leonowen
March 1, 2000
Anna and the King of Siam gave people the proper Victorian governesses and cruel Oriental potentates they wanted. This 1944 novel by Margaret
Landon was promptly made into a film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. In 1951 the story opened on Broadway as a successful Rogers and Hammerstein musical comedy, and then it became a film starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
In 1999 yet another vrsion of this perennial favorite has came out – a film titled "Anna and the King."
The story is based on the experiences of Anna Leonowen, who went to work for Mongkut, King of Siam, in 1862. Anna told her story in The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872), and that is where Margaret Langdon got the ideas for her novel. But Anna had already fictionalized the story herself. It seems that she vilified the late Mongkut (1804-1868) for dramatic purposes; he was a moderate reformer who was apparently innocent of the grisley deeds that Anna attributes to him. In fact, Anna plagiarized several of his atrocities from stories and legends about earlier Siamese rulers. Anna was not from Wales as she claimed, but from India. Her father was not the fine Captain Crawford she claimed, but a poor army sergeant named Edwards. Her deceased husband was not Major Thomas Leonowens of the Indian Army, but a hotel manager in Penang named Thomas Leon Owens. (She never mentioned him in her books; so much for the widow's tender song "Hello, Young Lovers.") Furthernore, the Mrs. Badger who once accompanied her husband and teenage Anna on an educational trip through the Middle East did not even exist. Mr. Badger was single, and he and Anna travelled alone. Evidently, Anna was a rather racy character for a Victorian governess.
Isn't Anna's beloved story true? Believing a musical comedy based on a novel based on an utterly dishonest autobiography is no more than an exercise in sentimentality.