Posted by: billpurdue | March 11, 2011

The Real Anna Leonowens

I seem to have been doing a lot of rambling in my last blog – or so it seemed afterwards – so this time I’ll attempt to be more concise, but I can’t promise!

Do you remember the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I”? I certainly do (I’m showing my age here), though I don’t remember liking it all that much. It was certainly a favourite of my Auntie Betty who had the LP of the film soundtrack. It starred Deborah Kerr,  Yul Brynner and Rita Moreno and was based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon (now out of print as far as I can tell). Wikipedia says that this book is a novel and correctly so according to the author of a book I’ve been reading called Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess by Susan Morgan [University of California Press £12.50 978-0520261631].

Susan Morgan sets out to tell the real story of Anna Leonowens who was not brought up in England, and , did not fall in love with King Mongkut, the King of Siam according to the musical. In fact she was of Eurasian origin, born and raised in Bombay of mixed parentage. When her husband Tom died she decided to reinvent herself as a Welsh born mother of two who stepped off a boat in Singapore to start a completely new life. It was shortly after settling in Singapore that she heard that the King of Siam was looking for a tutor for his children and was careful to exclude English applicants for the post as previous incumbents had proved unsuitable. Anna only stayed in Bangkok for five and a bit years. Having been ill a few times she decided she needed to see her daughter, Avis, who had been attending a boarding school in England, whilst her son, Louis, had been living with her.

In the late 1860s Anna was by then in America and there she began to write about her experiences in the Siamese Court and life of the women in the royal harem, some of whom she had got to know very well. She wanted to draw attention to  the plight of the women in the harem who were destined for a life within the royal household with no access to the outside world and no prospect of family life. In this scholarly, yet very readable book, Susan Morgan sets out to record the true facts about Anna’s life, which, partly due to Margaret Landon’s book and partly due to Anna herself, have been obscured from view for so long. It’s detailed and , in parts, a little heavy going, but well worth the read.

Wonders of the Universe


Professor Brian Cox’s new book, Wonders of the Universe [ Collins £20 978-0007395828] and TV series  have got me hooked. It’s very different from Wonders of the Solar System [Collins £20 978-0007386901]  – why? –well in this new book he tackles some very difficult concepts which most documentary presenters  would find very tricky to put over without making the programme resemble an Open University presentation. Professor Cox explains what he’s trying to get at much better than I can in his promotional videos on Amazon (just look up “Wonders of the Solar System”). I’m hoping to watch the whole series and then read more in the book and maybe, just maybe, I’ll understand what it all means. Even if I don’t get the whole picture, the whole subject is really fascinating. I think he is becoming the David Attenborough of astrophysics.


  1. i like the book “anna and the king of siam” (1944) very much. when miss anna leonowens has been writing her diaries, she has impossibly not known, that the book, based on her writings has become a bestseller and a famous movie and musical. i am sure, if she has lived in the days of the 1940s and 1950s, she will have written and told her real story, but unfortunately she has died in 1915.

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