Margaret Landon •
Anna and the King of Siam •
In 1862 Anna Leonowens, a young widow of Anglo-Indian extraction, accepted a post as tutor to the royal offspring of King Mongkut. To call her action brave hardly does Leonowens justice: Arriving in Bangkok alone but for her young son, she knows no one in the entire country and does not speak the language. Her experiences over the next five years filled two volumes of memoirs that Margaret Landon has consolidated and retold here in story form.
At their first interview the king asks Leonowens’s age. Considering this intrusive, she replies that she is 150, giving 1712 as her year of birth. Mongkut shows a glimmer of amusement at her ability to sidestep rather than defy him, and this sets the tone for their encounters to come. Leonowens quickly becomes a sounding board and English-language secretary for the king as well as his children’s teacher.
The widespread practice of slavery deeply disturbs Leonowens, who tries, often in vain, to intercede on behalf of the oppressed. One of the royal concubines is so affected by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin that she begins appending Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name to her own as a sign of veneration.
Teaching brings its own challenges. A snake that suddenly appears in the classroom, though terrifying Leonowens, is interpreted as a favorable omen by her pupils. The existence of snow is scoffed at; surely she’s making this up! And a tea party ends with the royal children appropriating nearly all her household effects—replaced the next day by opulent gifts of “no earthly use.”
Historians in recent years have disputed many particulars of the memoirs. What we do know for certain is that this exceptional woman lived in the royal compound, taught the Siamese king’s children, and came back with a tale that captivated the western world.