Everybody knows the story of Anna and the King of Siam – or at least they think they do. Way back in 1956 20th Century Fox released their musical based on this book and the world fell in love with Anna Leonowens and her almost love affair with the King of Siam – a man that seemed to respect her intelligence but remained would still happily have bedded the beautiful teache if she hadn’t been pining still for the memory of her husband.
I loved “The King and I”, and still do. I also loved the 1999 dramatisation of it “Anna and the King” which starred Jodie Foster and was more focussed on the social and political aspects rather than just the beautiful woman wearing beautiful dresses against a beautiful backdrop.
But neither come close to the book. First released in 1944, Margaret Landon used a memoir written by Anna Leonowens and fashioned them into a compelling narrative of her time in Siam. Anna Leonowens was used to life abroad, but in 1862 travelling into a country that was not part of the British Empire was incredibly risky. Still, as a widow she needed to earn money to support her children, young Lois who stays with her, and her daughter Avis, sent back home to a boarding school.
Leonowens considered herself a modern woman, a woman of science. As such she often found herself in opposition to the traditions of Imperial rule and Court life. She found slavery particularly abhorrent and wasn’t overly keen on how women were treated either. Throughout her career there she fought oppression at every turn, even when her household was attacked and her life and that of her young son endangered.
Throughout all of this though there is also a tremendous appeciation of Siam and a love for her friends there, including the King and many of his wives. A wisdom seeps through the pages and a resilience. She always knew she could never win every battle but she fights on anyway without getting too depressed or angered by those she loses. This grace is a trait which helped her and her causes enormously.
There are some moments when the narrative’s dramatic tension dips, and I have to admit I there are times when the constant attitude of the East learning from the West got on my nerves a little, I’d love to read Prince Chulalongkorn’s version of events. Was it Anna Leonowenss’ influence on the young prince that led him to abolish slavery in Siam and introduce democratic reform, or was it influence from somewhere else? Although having said that, even if he wasn’t as influenced by her and the West as is implied, Anna Leonowens is still a legendary feminist figure and I would encourage everyone to read it.