Leonowens, Anna (Anna Harriette Edwards Leonowens)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Leonowens, Anna (Anna Harriette Edwards Leonowens)

Leonowens, Anna (Anna Harriette Edwards Leonowens) (1831-1915) Welsh educator, journalist, and feminist

In the course of her work as a schoolteacher and journalist, Anna Leonowens observed the maneuvering of southeastern Asians to avoid absorption into the British Empire. The daughter of Sergeant Thomas Edwards of the Royal Sappers and a Eurasian, Mary Anne Glasscott, the author claimed Caernarvon, Wales, as her birthplace, which later research found to be Ahmadnagar India. At age 18, she married Thomas Louis Leon Owens, a clerk in Poona, India. After his death from sunstroke in Penang, Malaysia, a decade later, she opened a school in Singapore under the surname Leonowens. In 1862, with her nine-year-old son, Louis Thomas, she moved on to Bangkok to teach the children and some of the 600 harem wives of Mongkut Rama IV of Siam (now Thailand). At the time, the 58-year-old king, the head of the Chakri dynasty, ruled an empire that included parts of Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia.

In 1867, Leonowens became a devout abolitionist. She settled at Sunnyside in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and completed her memoirs with details of life in Asian colonies. In addition, she wrote travelogues for the Halifax Critic and the Halifax Herald and published for the Atlantic Monthly the series The English Governess at the Siamese Court (January-June 1870) and articles on southeast Asian slavery and concubinage. Leonowens’s contributions to 19th-century FEMINISM survive in Margaret Dorothea Landon’s BIOGRAPHY Anna and the King of Siam (1944) and in composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s romanticized Broadway musical The King and I (1951), originally starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. Contributing to Leonowens’s lasting fame are the films Anna and the King of Siam (1946), starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison; The King and I (1956), featuring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner; and Anna and the King (1999), a reprise of the first films pairing Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat.

A Teacher's Insights

Like MARCO POLO in China, RUDYARD KIPLING in India, and ISAK DINESEN in Kenya, Leonowens came to terms with an exotic foreign setting. According to The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok (1870), during her years in the Siamese palace, she served as Mongkut’s private secretary, translator, and negotiator with British and French consulates. In a rigidly male environment, Leonowens had to balance her influence as tutor to the nine-year-old crown prince Chowfa Chulalongkorn (later Rama V) with the impotence of a female in an androcentric nation. At her height, she encouraged educational reform and motivated Chulalongkorn to question dungeons, kowtowing, concubinage, and slavery. Of harem dwellers, she mourned, “How I have pitied those ill-fated sisters of mine, imprisoned without a crime!” (Leonowens 1870, 103). Her compassion underlies her most lyric passages on “the sickening hideousness of slavery … pain, deformity, darkness, death, and eternal emptiness, a darkness to which there is neither beginning nor end, a living which is neither of this world nor of the next” (104). Under her guidance, the prince came to realize, “It is we, the princes, who have yet to learn which is the more noble, the oppressor or the oppressed” (284). After his ascent to the throne in 1868, he modernized Siam by reforming slavery (it would not be completely abolished until 1915), disenfranchising the hereditary elite, equipping a modern army, founding the nation's first university, and maintaining his nation's sovereignty against European incursions.

Endangered health ended Leonowens's classroom career and began her dedication to writing, lecturing, the arts, and school administration. Near the end of her six-year employment in Bangkok, the encroachment of Burmese insurgents and of European imperialism increased pressure to compose neutral correspondence to protect Mongkut from British and French imperialists. Because of the contrast between her influence and her gender, Leonowens was an anomaly. She admitted to a serious depression from “the utter loneliness and forlornness of my life, under the load of cares and provocations and fears that gradually accumulated upon me” (282). Later, in The Romance of the Harem (1872), she continued attacking male primacy and the confinement and degradation of women, including Mongkut's numerous concubines. The narrative charges, “Polygamy—or, properly speaking, concubinage—and slavery are the curses of the country” (Leonowens 1872, 10).

Some 14 years after Leonowens began writing, she turned her thoughts back to India for Life and Travel in India: Being Recollections of a Journey before the Days of Railroads (1884). In a lengthy discourse on the Indian subcontinent, she censured the disinterest of “the great English grandees,” who know and care little of the customs, religion, race, or languages of hundreds of provinces (Leonowens 1884, 321). To the credit of the British Raj, she claims, life improved for the poor in urban Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, but not in the outback. The abolition of floating corpses on the Ganges River lessened outbreaks of disease. Outlawing of suttee, the practice of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their deceased mates, which RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA later deplored in the novella Heat and Dust (1975), limited the custom to remote communities. Her comments on restrictions on infanticide and suppression of thuggees (cult killers) augmented her view of the British Empire as a beneficial regime in India.


Dagg, Anne Innis. The Feminine Gaze: A Canadian

Compendium of Non-Fiction Women Authors and

Their Books, 1836-1945. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2001.

Leonowens, Anna. The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. London: Trubner, 1870.

----- . Life and Travel in India: Being Recollections of a Journey before the Days of Railroads. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1884.

----- . The Romance of the Harem. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.