Anna Leonowens, apparently addressed as “Sir” in the Siamese court, was…adept at reinvention. Conversant in Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, and Persian, to take on the role of royal governess she adopted the clipped tones of a dyed-in-the-wool English school ma’am. She had not yet stepped foot in England and remains the only foreigner to have lived inside the court of Siam.
The truth about Anna Harriet Emma Edwards, as she was christened, is buried beneath a palimpsest of fictions, many of which she herself propounded…Born in Bombay in 1831 to an Indian or half-Indian mother, who was thirteen years old when she married, and a father who was a lowly employee of the East India Company, Anna later doctored her biography so that her maiden name became Crawford, her birthplace Caernarfon, in Wales, and her father’s rank that of a major. “The most important thing in your life,” she noted, “is to choose your parents.” That observation, which might have been made by Oscar Wilde, was typically resourceful. At the age of seventeen, Anna married he sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens, and they moved to Australia, then Malaysia, and finally to India, where, in 1856, he died, leaving behind an impoverished widow and two young children. For many women in her position – poor, unprotected, not entirely white – the only direction would be down. Remarriage was the only viable option, but Anna, who would never marry again, instead worked her way upward as a widow. Blending together her deceased husband’s middle and last names to form the exotic “Leonowens,” she elevated his status from clerk to English army officer and knocked three years off her age…
Practical in her ambitions, Anna Leonowens sought neither to propagate new religion nor to purify the earth, but she did win her soul in a harem consisting of nine thousand children, wives, sisters, consorts, and concubines. As well as teaching rational thought to the King’s eighty children and English grammar to his scores of wives, she introduced both underwear and silverware to court life and advised His royal highness on matters of state policy. After five years, she left Siam – a court built on what she dramatically described as “slavery, polygamy, flagellation of women & children, immolation of slaves, secret poisoning and assassination” – and immigrated to America, via England and Ireland. Ever restless, Leonowens then crossed Russia and settled for a time with her daughter in Nova Scotia and her grandchildren in Germany…
Few women lived as inventively as Anna Leonowens, who blew about the globe like chaff…In 1870, she wrote her memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Seventy years later, the book was turned by Margaret Landon into the best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, which was itself transformed, in 1951, into the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I.
It is fitting that a shape-shifter like Anna Leonowens should find her life story morphed into so many genres. And equally fitting, for a woman with her sense of theater, that she should count among her nephews a boy named William Pratt, who would grow up to be the actor Boris Karloff!
–Frances Wilson, “A Woman Adventurer,” Lincoln Center Theater Review, Spring 2015