Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I first premiered on March 29th, 1951, at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. The source material for the stage musical, Anna and the King of Siam (1944 novel), was itself based on the real Anna’s highly fictionalized account of her six years at the Court of King Mongkut.
The story of Anna Leonowens is one that has been told many times and in many ways, the most famous rendition, of course, being the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, The King and I.
But apparently, there’s a lot more to her than the prissy crinolined version we see in popular culture.
As it turns out, compared to her reel life, Anna Leonowens’ real life was even stranger.
To begin with, Anna claimed to have been born in Wales in 1834 into an upper-middle-class family. In truth, she was born in Bombay in 1831, to a British corporal and a mother of mixed British and Indian origin.
Besides learning Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, and Sanskrit, she could also mimic a wonderful genteel English accent when it suited her.
At seventeen, she married the love of her life, Thomas Louis Leon Owens, who worked as a clerk. The couple spent the early years of their marriage in Perth before they eventually moved to Penang, where Thomas died of a sudden stroke in 1859.
Left widowed, Anna moved to Singapore and began teaching to support herself and her two children, reinventing herself while she was at it.
She subtracted three years from her age and promoted her father from private to major and her husband from a clerk to an army officer. She also completely hid her mixed racial heritage, posing as an educated Welsh gentlewoman until 1862 when she was asked to be a teacher at the Siamese court.
“To Mrs. A. H. Leonowens:
Madam: We are in good pleasure that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.
Believe me Your faithfully, S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut”
The King of Siam, a former Buddhist monk and an accomplished scholar, was seeking a woman who would teach English without trying to proselytize.
Anna fit the bill perfectly.
Arriving in Bangkok, she began teaching Mongkut’s children, then numbering about 60, including the crown prince. She also served as an unofficial secretary to the king.
Though there’s no proof of a romantic attachment between the real Anna and King Mongkut, she truly respected his politics and intellectualism. At the same time, she struggled to accept his deeply ingrained views on slavery and misogyny.
In the stage/film adaptation, we see Anna assume charge of the ladies in the king’s harem, filling their heads with “western” ideas about freedom, feminism, and monogamy.
The real Anna, however, described them as her “sisters” and saw them as her equals.
Though she would eventually go on to describe Siam as being rife with “slavery, polygamy, flagellation of women & children, immolation of slaves, secret poisoning and assassination,” Anna thrived there.
She was quick to take credit for her influence in the modernization of the country, although this is highly doubted by historians, along with her allegation that Mongkut’s slave Tuptim was burnt at the stake for taking a lover.
In 1868 she became ill and left for England with every intention of returning in six months. But the King died unexpectedly, and his son, Prince Chulalongkorn, sent her a letter thanking her for her service, politely dismissing her from the court.
Left without a source of income again, she travelled to England and Ireland before settling in the United States, where she began teaching again.
Shortly after, she wrote her commercially successful memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870) and “The Romance of the Harem”(1873), to which the then King of Siam responded with the statement that she “has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory.”
Echoing his views, historians over the years have identified more than a few glaring inaccuracies in her accounts of her time at court, although one fact remains indisputable – her moral outlook and beliefs ring true throughout her story, both reel and real.
An intriguing, albeit controversial figure from the start, Anna Leonowens died in 1915. Her equally enthralling story, nevertheless, continues to be told.
Featuring a company of over 50 world-class performers, a superior score of treasured songs, and even a slight hint of romance, the multi-award winning production of The King and I comes to London this June.
Book your tickets to watch it at the London Palladium here.