We all know the story of Anna and the king of Siam through the books, Broadway play and movie. But that romanticized version is more fiction than fact. What a shock to learn that Anna, the British governess to the king, really came from India! The daughter of an Englishman and a woman of mixed Indian and Anglo descent, she grew up in crowded military barracks, far from the ideal fantasy that she created. She married Corporal Thomas Leon Owens when she was eighteen, and had four children. After the deaths of her husband and two of her children, Anna took her remaining children to Singapore, arriving with the fantastic story that has clung to her all these years: that she was a British gentlewoman from Wales, widow of Major Thomas Leonowens, with two children born in England. But the true story is much more compelling.
Anna had a photographic memory. She was multilingual and tolerant of all cultures through her association with the people in India—Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. She learned Sanskrit and traveled extensively lecturing and teaching after her position ended in Siam.
Anna was the only Western person allowed in the king's harem of over sixty children, their mothers, and servants. Since they could not leave the harem, she viewed them as being incarcerated, and she worked diligently for their release. As researcher and author Susan Morgan writes, "Her critiques of Siam were not about how the West should treat the East. They were about how men should treat women, about the immense potential women have if only allowed to develop it freely, and about the equalities that should exist between people everywhere as a natural and spiritual right."
Morgan's extensive and careful research provides the reader with the facts of Anna's life and shows how this amazing woman truly lived and fought for women's rights by exemplifying the principles she espoused in her own life. Throughout the book, pictures of Anna at various ages add to the narrative. The only drawback is the repetition that makes some of the chapters sound as if they may have been written as stand-alone articles. Recommended for women's and multicultural collections.
Susan Morgan, Distinguished Professor of English at Miami University, is the author of Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women's Travel Writings about Southeast Asia, among other books.
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