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Bookshelf Spotlight: Anna Leonowens, Siam, and “The King & I”

Featured University Of Hawai’i Press Publishing

* Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation

Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation

by Thongchai Winichakul
University Of Hawai’i Press, 1994

This unusual and intriguing study of nationhood explores the 19th-century confrontation of ideas that transformed the kingdom of Siam into the modern conception of a nation. Siam Mapped challenges much that has been written on Thai history because it demonstrates convincingly that the physical and political definition of Thailand on which other works are based is anachronistic.

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Featured Books

* The English Governess At The Siamese Court
* Anna and the King of Siam
* Romance of the Harem
* Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess
* Mongkut the King of Siam

The English Governess At The Siamese Court

by Anna Leonowens
Oxford University Press, USA; 1st edition (March 17, 1989), Originally published in 1870

The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok (1870) vividly recounts the experiences of one Anna Harriette Leonowens as governess for the sixty-plus children of King Mongkut of Siam, English teacher for his entire royal family, and translator and scribe for the King himself. Bright, young, and energetic, Leonowens was well-suited to these roles, and her writings convey a heartfelt interest in the lives, legends, and languages of Siam’s rich and poor. She also tells of how she and the King often disagreed on matters domestic. After all, this was the first time King Mongkut had met a woman who dared to contradict him, and the governess found the very idea of male domination intolerable. Overworked and underpaid, Leonowens would eventually resign, but her exchanges with His Majesty–heated and otherwise–on topics like grammar, charity, slavery, politics, and religion add much to her diary’s rich, cross-cultural spirit, its East-meets-West appeal.

Over the years, that appeal has only increased. Eighty years after it first appeared, this memoir inspired the popular book and film, Anna and the King of Siam, and a few years later the hit musical, The King and I. Now comes yet another version, Anna and the King, the new film starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat. Here, then, is the original tale, presented with many reproductions of the fine drawings that the King had offered as gifts to Leonowens. The English Governess at the Siamese Court remains engaging as a story of adventure, fascinating as a picture of nineteenth-century Bangkok, and intriguing as an account of life inside King Mongkut’s palace.

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Anna and the King of Siam

by Margaret Landon
Harper Paperbacks, 1999; Originally published in 1944

Anna Leonowens, a proper Englishwoman, was an unlikley candidate to change the course of Siamese (Thai) history. A young widow and mother, her services were engaged in the 1860’s by King Mongkut of Siam to help him communicate with foreign governments and be the tutor to his children and favored concubines. Stepping off the steamer from London, Anna found herself in an exotic land she could have only dreamed of lush landscape of mystic faiths and curious people, and king’s palace bustling with royal pageantry, ancient custom, and harems. One of her pupils, the young prince Chulalongkorn, was particularly influenced by Leonowens and her Western ideals. He learned about Abraham Lincoln and the tenets of democracy from her, and years later he would become Siam’s most progressive king. He guided the country’s transformation from a feudal state to a modern society, abolshing slavery and making many other radical reforms.

Weaving meticulously researched facts with beautifully imagined scenes, Margret Landon recreates an unforgettable portrait of life in a forgotten extotic land. Written more than fifty years ago, and translated into dozens of languages, ” Anna and the King of Siam “(the inspiration for the magical play and film “The King and I”)continues to delight and enchant readers around the world.

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Romance of the Harem

by Anna Leonowens
University of Virginia Press, 1991; Originally published in 1873

The author is Anna Leonowens, the lovely English governess to the children of the King of Siam whose story is immortalized, highly romanticized in the Rogers & Hammerstein musical “The King and I” (1951). “Truth is often stranger than fiction,” writes Leonowens. Fiction based on fact, embellished to fascinate the reader and get the point across, is perhaps a more precise description of all the gruesome torture and persecutions of the ladies of the harem by the King who was a Buddhist monk and abbot for 26 years before ascending to the throne.

King Mongkut’s harem was so immense it encompassed an enormous complex within the Grand Palace in Bangkok called the Nang Harm (“Veiled Women”), surrounded by a high wall, housing the royal princesses, wives, and concubines of the king. It was a world of its own, complete with Amazon-women guards, prisons, judges and executioners, but also schools and theaters. Here the women carried out their connubial duty to produce the king’s heirs. When King Mongkut died he left behind 66 royal children.

After five years, Anna Leonowens left, traveling to England and Ireland before settling in the United States and eventually Canada, where she once again supported herself by teaching.

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Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess

by Susan Morgan
University of California Press, 2008

If you thought you knew the story of Anna in The King and I, think again. As this riveting biography shows, the real life of Anna Leonowens was far more fascinating than the beloved story of the Victorian governess who went to work for the King of Siam. To write this definitive account, Susan Morgan traveled around the globe and discovered new information that has eluded researchers for years. Anna was born a poor, mixed-race army brat in India, and what followed is an extraordinary nineteenth-century story of savvy self-invention, wild adventure, and far-reaching influence. At a time when most women stayed at home, Anna Leonowens traveled all over the world, witnessed some of the most fascinating events of the Age of Empire, and became a well-known travel writer, journalist, teacher, and lecturer. She remains the one and only foreigner to have spent significant time inside the royal harem of Siam. She emigrated to the United States, crossed all of Russia on her own just before the revolution, and moved to Canada, where she publicly defended the rights of women and the working class. The book also gives an engrossing account of how and why Anna became an icon of American culture in The King and I and its many adaptations.

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Mongkut the King of Siam

by Abbot Low Moffat
Cornell University Press; 1st Cornell Printing edition (1968)

In this fascinating biography, Moffat considers Mongkut to be one of the great men of Siam, and seeks to recover him from the well-loved fictions. Includes a number of black-and-white illustrations. He is skeptical of the reliability of Anna Leonowns accounts and analyzes some of them.

Must reading for the fans of Margaret Landon and the stage play / movies and people with an interest in Asian history.

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