In 1944, Margaret Landon published Anna and the King of Siam, a semi-fictionalized biographical novel about Anna Leonowens and her time working for King Mongkut. It was an immediate success, with The New York Times hailing the novel as “an inviting escape into and unfamiliar, exotic past...calculated to transport us instantly.” Just two years later, the book was made into the 1946 film of the same name, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrington.
But most would argue the real masterpiece was made five years later, when Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted the story for their Tony Award-winning 1951 stage musical The King and I, which would be memorialized in 1956 with the movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
The story was adapted for the screen at least three more times after that, including the television series Anna and the King (1972), the animated Warner Bros. film The King and I (1999), and the feature film Anna and the King (1999), starring Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat, and Tom Felton. However, the true story that started it all occurred much, much earlier, sparking a long and sometimes controversial history about what happened between the English teacher and the Siam king.
The History of Anna Leonowens
Born in 1831, Anna Leonowens was just 29 years old when her husband died, leaving her an impoverished widow with two surviving children. The family had been living in Penang, with Anna’s husband working as a hotel keeper before his sudden death. To support her children, Anna opened a school for the children of British officers in Singapore. Though the school did not earn much money, it did give Anna a reputation as a teacher.
This paid off in 1862, when Anna was offered a job teaching the wives and children of Mongkut, the King of Siam. Anna accepted the position, sent her daughter Avis to London for school, and took her son Louis with her to the King’s court in Bangkok.
Anna remained at the post for nearly six years, after which she published two memoirs about the experience: (1870) and (1873). The first memoir immediately made Anna famous, though many have . The second memoir strongly underscored Anna’s feminist perspective, with her writing focusing on the subjugation of women in Siamese culture.
Almost 75 years later, Margaret Landon brought Anna’s story back to life with her novel, Anna and the King of Siam. Landon embellished Anna’s memoir with more details about Siamese culture. From there, the films added more layers to the story, including the suggestion that Anna and the King had feelings for one another.
Such additions were considered disrespectful by the Thailand government, causing the Rodgers and Hammerstein film to be banned there. Years later, the government banned the 1999 version of the film starring Jodie Foster as well, stating it was “against the good morale and the culture of the nation.”
Below, we’ve included an excerpt from Margaret Landon’s novel. In chapter 6, Anna has just arrived in Siam—and she’s just about to realize what she’s gotten herself into.
Anna started up, all the gloom of the night before descending upon her like a flock of vultures. Louis was still asleep. Dressing quickly and combing her hair, she braced herself for the day ahead. There was water in a pitcher, there was a basin, soap, a towel. She scrubbed her face vigorously, but the mirror told her that no water and soap could wash away the shadow of fear and loneliness. Louis awoke as he heard her stirring. His eyes were eager and questioning, his smile bright and rested. A sudden ray of sunshine caught in his soft hair.
“Mama, we’re here! Where’s the Palace, Mama? I want to see it. Can we see it today?”
She smiled and drew him to the window.
“Kneel down, Louis, and we’ll ask our Heavenly Father to take care of us in this new place.”
His childish voice joined hers: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” The smooth old words rolled out with their endless comfort, and she prayed silently in her heart: “Lord, Lord, have mercy! Boy is so young! The shadows are so black! Does it need this bitter baptism to purify his young soul?” … “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
When they were ready they went into the outer room where Mrs. Bush met them en déshabillé, not beautiful as she had seemed to them the night before, but with the same pleasant smile. She led them to a breakfast table spread with a cloth and set with fruits and tea. As they sat down a servant brought bowls of steaming rice and soup. The hot food was good.
Before they had finished Captain Bush joined them.
“Well, well, and how are you?” he asked heartily. “Another day, eh? Do things look better this morning? Of course they do, of course they do. The prince had you pretty badly frightened, didn’t he?” Anna smiled wanly and Captain Bush went off into a long description of what had happened. His wife listened attentively, only interpolating a word now and then, and smiling at them reassuringly. In the yard below two of her sons in wet sarongs were running about laughing and shouting, then plunging into the river that flowed past the house. Louis could hardly wait to join them.
“Really, though,” said the captain, turning back to Anna, “he’s not a bad sort, Prince Wongsa. The foreigners here like him. He has a reputation for decency and liberality. You’ll see after a while.”
“That may be,” said Anna uncertainly, “but in the darkness he looked like a bear. The real question is, what shall I do next?”
“Do!” expostulated the captain. “Don’t do anything. This is Siam. You mustn’t be rushing out and doing things. The important point here is to be able to wait until things come to you. Don’t worry! The King’s put out money for your passage. He’ll demand your services in good time.”
“But the King doesn’t even know where I am,” she objected.
“Of course he does. The King knows everything that goes on here. You didn’t expect him to meet you personally, did you? No, no, of course not. The Kralahome will send for you in due time.”
“The who will send for me?”
“The Kralahome, you know. The premier who met you on the ship yesterday. The most important man in the kingdom. Everybody calls him by his Siamese title. He’ll send for you when he’s decided what to do with you!”
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Breakfast was hardly over when this prophecy came true. The Kralahome’s boat drew up at the landing. The interpreter told her that she was to bring her servants and her luggage and come to his master’s palace at once.
The work of packing was quickly finished, and the little party stowed in the long swift boat.
“Now “don’t worry,” Mrs. Bush urged Anna, patting her on the shoulder. “Everything is going to be all right. Just you give it time.”
“Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us,” Anna said gratefully. “I can never tell you how much I appreciate your graciousness to a stranger.”
“Good-by. God be with you.” The captain waved a plump red hand, and the boat with its many rowers shot out into the river, which was even busier in the daylight. Boats of all sorts and sizes were darting back and forth. Big junks with staring eyes pulled at their anchors.
In about a quarter of an hour the Kralahome’s boat had crossed the river and drawn up at a stone quay in a small canal. Staying close together, Anna in the lead, Beebe with Louis, Moonshee and the dog Bessy, the little party walked across the quay to a low gateway, which opened into a courtyard paved with rough-hewn slabs of stone. Two stone mandarins of ferocious aspect, mounted on horses, guarded the entrance. Farther on, a pair of men-at-arms in bas-relief challenged them. Near these stood live sentries, dressed in European uniforms but barefoot. On the left was a pavilion for theatrical performances, the whole back wall of which was covered with a mural. On the right was the Kralahome’s palace, with a large semicircular façade. In the background was an extensive range of buildings.
Awed a little, they climbed the stairs to the palace. They moved softly after the interpreter, through spacious saloons in ascending tiers, all carpeted. At the windows were luxurious draperies. Crystal candelabra hung from the ceilings. A superb vase of silver, embossed and burnished, stood on a table inlaid with mother-of-pearl and chased with silver. Flowers of great variety and beauty filled the rooms with a languorous and slightly oppressive fragrance. On every side were rare vases, jeweled cups and boxes, burnished chalices, statuettes, Oriental and European, antique and modern.
They came at last to the audience chamber where their guide stopped. Anna caught sight of a number of young girls peeping at them from behind the velvet curtains which hung from ceiling to floor. A large group of male attendants crouched in the antechamber. Some were in the poor clothing of servants or slaves. Others were handsomely dressed and seemed to be younger relatives of the Kralahome. There was a subdued bustle of excitement, the peering of many dark eyes, and the little party of aliens stood in the middle of it, uncertain, apprehensive, and wholly bewildered by the magnificence and strangeness of what they had seen.
Suddenly the curtains parted and the Kralahome stood before them, semi-nude as on the night before. The murmuring ceased instantly. A wave of unreasoning fear overwhelmed Anna. She gritted her teeth. This man was powerful and what he decided would affect all her future life. He was acting for the King, that was obvious. But while she needed to concentrate her faculties on what was to be said a mist of repugnance clouded her mind. She found herself unable to think clearly. Then, too, she was uncomfortably aware of his naked torso. She had never before done business with a half-clothed man. Some sixth sense acquired from long years in “the Orient suggested that the absence of a jacket indicated an absence of respect for her and for the position that she was to fill. In all that room there was not a friendly face. In all Siam there was no one to whom she could appeal for help. An impulse to bolt came over her. She half turned to run, back through the antechambers, tier on tier, out through the garden to the quay—but then where?
The Kralahome held out his hand. “Good morning, sir,” he said in careful English. “Take a seat, sir.”
She grasped the proffered hand, and smiled involuntarily at the “sir.” Its incongruousness diverted her from her fears for the moment and restored a measure of balance to her thoughts.
“Thank you,” she said, and sat down a little stiffly on a carved bench.
The noble, oblivious of the embarrassment that his scanty costume created in the Englishwoman, approached her with an expression of pleased curiosity, and patted her small son on the head.
“What is your name, little boy?” he asked.
But Louis cried in alarm, “Mama, come home! Please, Mama, come home!”
“Be quiet, Louis! Hush, dear! This is no way to act. Tell the prince your name!” But the child was in a paroxysm of frightened weeping. When he was calm at last Anna said nervously to the interpreter who crouched beside her on the floor: “Will you ask your master if he will be so kind as to present my request for a quiet house or apartment to His Majesty as soon as possible? I should like to settle my belongings before my work begins. The King has promised me a residence near the Palace. I should like a place where I could be free from intrusion before and after school hours.”
When this request was interpreted to the Kralahome, seemingly in monosyllables, he stood smiling and looking at her as if surprised and amused that she should have ideas on the subject of freedom. This look changed quickly to one in which shrewdness, inquisitiveness, and puzzled conjecture blended. After a careful study of her face and person he spoke directly to her, “You are not married?”
She bowed slightly. “My husband is dead.”
“Then where will you go in the evening?”
“Not anywhere, Your Excellency,” she answered shortly, pricked by the insinuation. “I simply desire to secure for myself and my child some privacy and rest when my duties have been fulfilled.”
“How many years your husband has been dead?” he insisted, apparently unconvinced of her virtuous purpose.
A cold still look passed over her face. Any lingering fear had been frozen into icy resentment. She turned to the interpreter. “Tell your master that his rights do not extend to the point of prying into my domestic concerns. His business with me is in my capacity of governess only. On other subjects I decline conversation.”
When the interpreter translated this a look of amazement passed over the face of the Kralahome, a look that gave her a short and bitter moment of pleasure, even though she doubted instantly the wisdom of having struck out so sharply. Her instinctive reaction had blinded her momentarily to the knowledge that Orientals usually opened a conversation with a series of personal questions, and that the Kralahome’s seeming impertinence may have implied nothing more than a conventional desire to be polite. Still, the words were said. It was important to establish her position at once, and her right to respect and privacy were integral parts of that. The Kralahome shrugged his shoulders slightly, “As you please.”
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Anna and the King of Siam
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Featured photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.