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How much of the story from "The King and I" and "Anna and the King" is an accurate biography of Anna Leonowens and the court of King Mongkut? Does popular culture accurately represent the historical reality of this woman's life story, or of the kingdom of Thailand's history?
Twentieth Century Popularity
"Anna and the King", the 1999 version of the story of Anna Leonowens' six years at the Court of Siam, is, like the 1956 movie musical and stage musical, both titled "The King and I", based on a 1944 novel, "Anna and the King of Siam". Jodie Foster stars in this version of Anna Leonowens. A 1946 movie "Anna and the King of Siam", also based on the 1944 novel, arguably had less impact than the latter popular versions of Anna Leonowen's time in Thailand but was still part of the evolution of this work.
The 1944 novel by Margaret Landon was subtitled "The Famous True Story of a Splendid Wicked Oriental Court." The subtitle is clearly in the tradition of what's come to be known as "orientalism" - the depiction of Eastern cultures, including Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern, as exotic, undeveloped, irrational and primitive. (Orientalism is a form of essentialism: ascribing characteristics to a culture and assuming that they are part of the static essence of that people, rather than a culture that evolves.)
"The King and I", a musical version of the story of Anna Leonowens, written by composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein, had its premiere on Broadway in March of 1951. The musical was adapted for a 1956 film. Yul Brynner played the role of King Mongkut of Siam in both versions, earning him both a Tony and an Academy Award.
It is probably not accidental that the newer versions of this, from the 1944 novel to the later stage productions and movies, came when the relationship between the west and the east was of high interest in the west, as World War II ended and western images of what "the East" represented might reinforce ideas of western superiority and the importance of western influence in "advancing" Asian cultures. The musicals, in particular, came at a time when America's interest in Southeast Asia was increasing. Some have suggested that the underlying theme - a primitive Eastern kingdom confronted by and literally schooled by a more rational, reasonable, educated West - helped lay the groundwork for America's growing involvement in Vietnam.
That 1944 novel, in turn, is based on the reminiscences of Anna Leonowens herself. A widow with two children, she wrote that she had served as governess or tutor to the sixty-four children of King Rama IV or King Mongkut. Upon returning to the West (first the United States, later Canada), Leonowens, as had many women before her, turned to writing to support herself and her children.
In 1870, less than three years after leaving Thailand, she published "The English Governess at the Siamese Court". Its immediate reception encouraged her to write a second volume of stories of her time in Siam, published in 1872 as "The Romance of the Harem" - clearly, even in the title, drawing on the sense of the exotic and sensational which had captivated the reading public. Her criticism of slavery led to her popularity especially in New England among those circles that had supported abolitionism in America.
The 1999 movie version of Anna Leonowens' service in Thailand, calling itself a "true story," was denounced for its inaccuracies by the government of Thailand.
That's not new, though. When Leonowens published her first book, the King of Siam responded, through his secretary, with the statement that she "has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory."
Anna Leonowens, in her autobiographical works, included details of her life and what was happening around her, many of which historians now believe were untrue. For example, historians believe that she was born in India in 1831, not Wales in 1834. She was hired to teach English, not as a governess. She included a story of a consort and monk being publicly tortured and then burned, but no one else, including many foreign residents of Bangkok, told of such an incident.
Controversial from the start, this story nevertheless continues to thrive: contrasting old and new, East and West, patriarchy with women's rights, freedom and slavery, fact mixed with exaggeration or even fiction.
How to Learn More About Anna Leonowens
If you want more in-depth information about the differences between the story of Anna Leonowens as told either in her own memoirs or in the fictional depictions of her life in Thailand, several authors have dug through the evidence to make the case both for her exaggerations and misrepresentations, and the interesting and unusual life that she did live. Alfred Habegger's 2014 scholarly study "Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam" (published by the University of Wisconsin Press) is probably the best researched. Susan Morgan's 2008 biography "Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess" also includes considerable research and an engaging story. Both accounts also include the story of more recent popular depictions of the story of Anna Leonowens, and how those depictions fit in with political and cultural trends.