Friday, 10 June 2016

Book Review: Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Without doubt books shape our idea of the world, notably when this world is separated from us in time or/and space. Unfortunately, everything that a writer evokes is necessarily biased – be it as a result of personal background and convictions or be it simply because of a different point of view. There is much that can make somebody tell a story in one way rather than another without consciously lying! Being the fictionalised biography of the real governess at the Royal Court in Bangkok in the 1860s, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon is a good example for it. Before writing her best-seller, the author was a Christian missionary in Siam and thus couldn’t but portray Anna Harriette Leonowens as a noble, virtually heaven-sent Englishwoman who brings the blessings of Western civilisation to the savage children of Siam including their King. The episodes from Anna’s life in Bangkok must be seen against this backdrop.

Margaret Landon, née Mortenson, was born in Somers, Wisconsin, USA, in September 1903. After graduating from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA, in 1925, she worked as a teacher until her marriage to Kenneth Landon the following year. In 1927 the couple went to Siam (today: Thailand) as Presbyterian missionaries and stayed there for nearly ten years. After their return Margaret Landon turned to writing. She published articles in different periodicals, but it was her fictionalised biography of the governess Anna Harriette Leonowens titled Anna and the King of Siam (1944) that brought her international fame. The later novel Never Dies the Dream (1949) could never come up to this success. Margaret Landon died in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, in December 1993.

In spring 1862, twenty-seven-year-old Anna Harriette Leonowens, the female protagonist of Anna and the King of Siam (now: Thailand), arrives in Bangkok to enter into the service of King Mongkut to teach English and sciences to his numerous children, wives, consorts and concubines. For her this is a rather uncertain though necessary enterprise because as widow without funds or backing of a family, she has to make a living for herself and for her two children. Thus she sent her daughter Avis (8) off to boarding school in England and headed into the unknown with her son Louis (6), two servants, and their Newfoundland dog. In Bangkok the Kralahome, i.e. the Prime Minister meets Anna in the harbour and tells her straight away that she has to see for herself where she will stay. However, things aren’t that bad in the end. After a night at the English harbourmaster’s house, Anna and her family are invited to be guests in the palace of the Kralahome himself until a house can be found for them, since she strictly refuses to live within the walls of the Grand Palace or more precisely in its harem like her students. During the following weeks Anna gets to know the few Westerners living in Bangkok who are mainly missionaries, merchants or ships’ captains and makes friends with some. At last she also meets the King, who has a reputation for being ill-tempered, and stands her ground before him. When she finally starts her school in the cool pavilion of a temple, she meets children and women of nearly all ages who are quite reserved at first, but eager to learn. Before long they warm to her and a few of them become friends introducing her into their own culture and language. For nearly six years she is their teacher and occasional secretary to the King.

Although Anna and the King of Siam is primarily based on the memoirs of Anna Harriette Leonowens published in the 1870s, there can be no doubt that the novel is a fictionalised account of the Bangkok years of the governess, moreover one written from the point of view of the convinced Presbyterian missionary and adapted to the (romantic) taste of an American audience longing for distraction from the war that raged in Europe and the South Pacific. Consequently, the author weaved the facts from the memoirs, additional information and some fiction into a peaceful and picturesque scene populated by Siamese who are an amiable but naïve and rather backward people in need of Western, i.e. Christian salvation. The English teacher is shown as the noble and wise woman to bring it. With attention being directed ever again to the lamentable situation of women in Siam at the time of the novel, notably to slavery, cruel punishments and polygamy, the wealth of Siamese and Buddhist culture necessarily keeps out of consideration just like the true character of the long deceased model of her portrait who was not only extraordinarily intelligent, well-read and courageous, but also very openminded and full of respect for other cultures. In language and style the novel is quite commonplace, in other words it’s pleasant and entertaining.

Until I read Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon I only knew one or two film versions and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical titled The King and I that have been made of it in the seventy years since its release in 1944. The novel certainly was an enjoyable read although I must admit that I had hoped to find in it a profounder and above all more realistic picture of nineteenth-century Thailand than Hollywood and Broadway produced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and I felt the need to turn to a well-researched modern biography of Anna Harriette Leonowens, namely Bombay Anna. The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess by Susan Morgan, to get more accurate information. Nonetheless, the novel is an light starting point for getting into the history and traditions of Thailand and as such I recommend it.

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  1. I came to your blog from Mariane's Let's Read blog. I like that you read other books than most bloggers! I will continue to visit. I have seen the version of The King and I with Yul Brenner. Etc,etc!! I cordially invite you to check out my blog.

    1. Thanks for saying that you like my choice of books! In fact, I don't see a point in reviewing the same books as most others - so I try not to.

      Oh, yes The King and I with Yul Brynner - a great classic although it's a bit different from the book as I found out. But that's how it works in the theatre and film busines: remove everything that the audience might not like and add scenes that it will love...

      Thanks for your comment, Judy! And be sure that I'll check out your blog ;-)


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