Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Anna's paternal grandfather arrived in India in 1810 as a cadet in the East India Company's army. Gently born women who were English and would deign to glance at someone of his low social status weren't numerous in India, so he married an Indian-born Eurasian.
It's a measure of her low social status that not even her name has survived. It was her existence that Anna Harriett Emma Edwards was determined to suppress.
Anna was born in 1831 in the cantonment of Ahmednuggar, inland from Bombay. She was no lady, but she would become one.
The process of reinvention began in earnest in 1859. Anna had married well, in that she and her husband, Thomas Leon Owens, loved each other deeply.
(Tom chose to use Leonowens as his surname.)
But he had risen to become a "hotel master" in Malaya, and now he was dead.
Anna retreated to Singapore with her two young children. No one knew her there, which suited her perfectly. She was intelligent, multilingual and well spoken.
She started a small school, virtually the only profession open to someone in her position, and so began an astonishing odyssey that would take her to the Grand Palace of Bangkok, the literary salons of New York and Boston, on a reporting tour of pre-revolutionary Russia, to a position teaching Sanskrit in a German university, to feminist activism in Halifax and, finally, to Montreal, where she died in 1915.
Of course, she had no wish to hide these later, well-known reinventions. It's Morgan's discovery of the Bombay Anna of her title that carries this biography.
Anyone who thinks the British experience in India was a long succession of polo, tea and brave officers leading the charge against howling native hordes will be riveted by Morgan's portrait of the gritty Anglo-Indian underclass from which Anna sprang.
The author also makes a brave attempt to defend Anna against the charge that she belittled King Mongkut in her first book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Though straining at times, Morgan is persuasive that Anna was right to think of the women in the inner palace as slaves; whether wives, concubines or court functionaries, they weren't necessarily happy with their lot.
Morgan also argues that while Anna occasionally offered Mongkut useful advice about the West, he was anything but her puppet.
There is another reinvented Anna, growing out of the fictionalized 1944 biography Anna and the King of Siam. Its author was Margaret Landon, who had been a missionary there.
Because Landon's husband became a policy officer for Southeast Asia at the CIA and the State Department after the couple returned to the United States, Broadway Anna played a part in making Thailand a U.S. ally during the Vietnam War and, today, a favourite destination of American tourists.

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