Nobody will deny that Anna Harriette Leonowens (1831-1915) was an impressive woman who led an extraordinary life for a woman in the Victorian Age. Nonetheless, nobody would still remember her, hadn’t her memoirs gotten into the hands of a Presbyterian missionary called Margaret Landon who wrote the biography of the English governess at the Royal Court of Siam in the 1860s. Anna and the King of Siam (»»» read my review on Edith’s Miscellany) quickly became a best-seller in 1944 and has been adapted for the stage as well as for the screen many times since. But how much of this story is true? In her biography Bombay Anna released in 2008 American scholar Susan Morgan ventures at telling The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess.
The biggest surprise is to find in a chapter dedicated to the ancestors of Anna Harriette Leonowens, née Anna Harriett Emma Edwards, that her origins aren’t as noble as she herself made believe even her closest family. While her maternal grandfather William Glascott in fact belonged to the minor English gentry, the woman he married or just lived with in India is a phantom who seems to have left no traces in written sources. Like other scholars, Susan Morgan assumes that she must have been Indian or of mixed race – “a lady not entirely white” as Mrs. Sherwood aka Mary Martha Butt put it in the nineteenth century – as was common with soldiers’ wives in India in the early nineteenth century because marriageable Englishwomen were extremely scarce. As the author points out, Anna Harriette Leonowens took great care to hide her maternal grandmother pretending to have been born in Wales of pure English blood almost three years later than in reality. From existing sources Susan Morgan draws the plausible conclusion that in fact she must have grown up in the camps of the Sappers and Miners Corps, in which her late father and her step-father had served. With vivid imagination supported by nineteenth-century reports the biographer reconstructs the life that Anna Harriette Leonowens must have led as a child in the camps attending the regimental school, but none of it is based on established facts about her person because historical sources lack. In the following Susan Morgan reveals still more biographical information that isn’t in line with reality until the moment when she became governess at the Royal Siamese Court in 1862. The later life of Anna Harriette Leonowens is better documented and her biographer confines herself to outlining the most important stages and to putting them into relation with her real as well as re-invented past.
In my review of Anna and the King of Siam I said that “there is much that can make somebody tell a story in one way rather than another”. This is certainly true for Anna Harriette Leonowens who changed and stretched the truth because she wanted to climb the social ladder and to be recognised as being of pure and noble English descent. It is also true for Susan Morgan who merged the information from historical sources, her background knowledge of the time and her imagination to bring to life the person Anna Harriette Leonowens as she believes her to have really been. It’s not for me to judge if her biography is state-of-the-art from the scientific point of view, but in any case it’s well-written and gripping portrait of an extraordinary woman.
See also the long review of Bombay Anna by Susan F. Kepner in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on Mainland Southeast Asia and the many expert comments there.