The British Empire Library

Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam

by Alfred Habegger

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Anna and the King of Siam and 'The King and I' (the book, film, and musical story') of Anna Leonowens nee Edwards (1831-1915), a British school teacher at the court (1862-1867) of King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam, unintentionally made that widowed woman, with two children, known worldwide. Who was Anna? Habegger summarises her unconventional life with these words: 'The British ancestor who had fathered a mixed-race progeny in India and by doing so had left his descendants... a legacy of shame, ambition, painful effort, and endless concealment.' Born in Ahmednagar (now in Maharashtra) growing up in Poona, schooled in Bombay, the 18-year-old daughter of an Irishman and a Eurasian mother married Thomas Leonowens from Enniscorthy in County Wexford, Ireland.

It was at this moment that Anna pretended to be of Welsh stock: with slightly darker skin than most English women in India and black hair though strictly speaking she was a 'quarter Eurasian ' - at least in the eyes of colonial British society. Starting their married life, the couple went to Western Australia. Four years later, in 1857, Thomas found a far better job in the Straits Settlements but died in Penang in May 1859. To earn her living, Anna set up a private school in Singapore. And here it was where King Mongkut's Chinese agent, looking for a suitable schoolmistress for the children of the King's harem, came across her.

A contract was signed and in early spring 1862 Anna took up her job. What she later wrote about her five years in Bangkok, what she told her American audience in her lecture tours turned more and more into a subjective description of her life and the court in the 1860s. Habegger compares and analyses these 'facts' with the information he gained from his research of contemporary sources: papers, diaries, reports / letters from businessmen, diplomats, journalists, and missionaries living in Bangkok. And Habegger unveils an Anna being proud of her British (white race) origin, often arrogant, stubborn and getting furious, but seldom diplomatic in her relations with the King: Less 'the King and I', more 'I and the King.'

She dealt with the King at eye level only which later made her very sympathetic for the American public. Habegger's second part of his documentation deals intensively with Anna's eleven years in New York and the New England states. When she arrived there she immediately was supported by people who had once been to south east Asia and she was admitted to a very influential society. What she told and wrote was highly welcomed by the public who had hardly ever heard anything about Siam. Though some doubts arose from her description of the Siamese court, she didn't once leave her adopted path, even when directly confronted with facts differing from her reports. Among these cautious critics was Henry James. As Anna's fame and attraction began to decline, her daughter married a banker and the family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia and later to Montreal. On purpose, Habegger has left out the biographical section covering Anna's life after 1878 until her death. This includes her five years at Kassel, in Germany, where she sent her grandchildren for a first-class education outside the English-speaking world - and the three years at Leipzig where she chaperoned her most beloved grand -daughter Anna Leonowens Fyshe, who studied the piano.

The third part of Habegger's book deals with Anna's revival. After her death she was soon forgotten until Margaret Landon discovered Anna's publications - and wrote the first biography Anna and the King of Siam (New York, 1944). She brought back Anna from the dead, but she romanticised her life so much that the book became far more misleading than anything Anna had written herself. Habegger has reserved one fifth of Masked to a most valuable appendix including genealogical tables which I have never found in similar biographies. He has compiled everything so carefully that the book will remain a reference work for any further research. As this documentation is crammed with facts and analyses, I recommend to read a biography (half the size of Habegger's book) first which tries to cover Anna's entire life, which will give the frame that Habegger fills with details - Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the 'King and I' Governess by Susan Morgan, published by the University of California Press in 2008.

British Empire Book
Alfred Habegger
First Published
University of Wisconsin Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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