For Seth and Susan
There’s a story behind the story of The King and I. Several stories, in fact, and the one we get in the musical is the least interesting of the lot. The real Anna Leonowens, as Susan Morgan reveals in her fascinating biography, Bombay Anna, was not the proper English lady that Deborah Kerr plays: the fair-haired, blue-eyed widow of a British officer stationed in India. The real Anna was an army brat born in India to a British father and an Anglo-Indian mother who was smart, good at languages, open-minded, and exceptionally adept at self-fabrication.
The real Anna was indeed a widow who was hired in 1862 by King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) to teach his children. She did help the king with his correspondence, talked politics with him and the more educated wives and concubines in his harem. That much was true. As for dancing with the king, and the frisson that passes between Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, blame Rogers and Hammerstein.
But don’t be too hard on Margaret Landon, whose 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, was the basis for the stage play and 1946 film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, along with the 1951 musical version of The King and I that became the delightful 1956 film. Landon was taken in by Anna’s romanticized version of the events of her life and was taken to task for her gullibility, but I suspect that the truth would have been unpalatable to audiences in the 1940s and 50s.
Anna wanted to make a life for herself after her husband died, she wanted to support her children by working, and by using her mind, not by remarrying. She was strong, stubborn, a free-thinker. All this comes across in Landon’s novel, and is conveyed in the musical. What Yul Brynner’s king lacks (and I don’t blame Mr. Brynner for this) is the intellectual seriousness that Anna’s Mongkut possessed. “He was the most educated of any crowned head of the day—either Oriental or European,” wrote Landon.
Anna had privileged access to Mongkut’s harem and was the only Westerner to report on the city of women who lived sequestered behind the palace walls. She protested against their sexual subjugation and general lack of freedom, but she also admired a great many of the women she got to know, and not only for their moral courage. Some 9,000 women served the king, not merely as concubines or slaves, mothers to his many children, but as judges, scribes, artists and craftswomen. A female police force kept order, and proved to be as disciplined and as tough as any other militia.
Anna’s five years in Siam were invigorating because of her interactions with the women of Mongkut’s court and with the king himself. Susan Morgan suggests that she struggled to make her life as rich and fulfilling after she left, reinventing herself again and again. In her writings about the women of the harem, she made a point of portraying Siamese women as something more than victims, even as she showed the terrible restrictions and punishments inflicted upon them. She lived long enough to become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights and helped to found a women’s college in Nova Scotia. Getting to know her, I came to admire her all the more.