Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bombay Anna (2008)

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess. Susan Morgan. 2008. University of California Press. 300 pages.

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed The English Governess and the Siamese Court. I found it boring and confusing. This biography of Anna Leonowens seeks to tell the "real story" of the governess of the King of Siam. Why is it necessary for the "real story" to be told? There are two very good reasons: first, Leonowens' own works--her memoirs and travel guides--were fictionalized in varying degrees, and, second, her life was further fictionalized by Margaret Landon in her 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. These two portraits of Anna are different from one another, and neither are quite true enough, genuine enough. Anna and the King of Siam has inspired several film adaptations (musical and non-musical). There was a real story to be uncovered, a story that was not discovered until several decades after The King and I. Bombay Anna tries to unveil a third portrait of Anna that explains and to a degree justifies the lies.
  • Did you know that Anna was biracial? Her mother and grandmother were Indian or perhaps Indian-Portuguese. 
  • Did you know that Anna was born in India? Despite her created biography, Anna was not born in England or Wales. She had never been to the UK at all when she entered into Siam.
  • Did you know that Anna was raised in a diverse, vibrant multicultural environment? Siam was not Anna's introduction to other cultures or faiths. Christianity was not the only exposure, by any means, she grew up playing with children of other faiths; she respected and admired many faiths. She was definitely opposed to all forms of proselytizing. She felt the last thing Buddhists needed was conversion to Christ. 
  • Did you know that Anna spoke many languages, that she continued to learn many languages throughout her life? Anna was GREAT at learning foreign languages. She excelled in reading, writing, translating, speaking other languages. 
  • Did you know that Anna was well-traveled? The first twenty or twenty-five years of her life were spent in India; but, she later traveled with her husband to Singapore, and, then Australia. She then worked in Siam. After leaving Siam, she finally visited Ireland and England. She spent time in the United States, Canada, and Germany. She also spent months traveling in Russia. 
  • Did you know that she raised many of her grandchildren? 
  • Did you know Anna was a socialist?
  • Did you know that her son Louis died in 1919 during the Great Influenza?
  • Did you know that her great-nephew was Boris Karloff?
 Essentially, once Anna became a widow, she completely reinvented herself, erased her past, and cut off all connections with her family in India. She wanted to be an upper class British woman, and, so she BECAME a "proper" British woman. She sent one daughter to boarding school (in Ireland, I believe) and kept her youngest son with her and took him to Siam. (He returned to Siam as an adult, and spent the majority of his life there. Once his wife died, he brought his children to his mother to raise.) The stories she told her children, her grandchildren was the fictional one of her creation. She wove in her (fictional) history--her life story--into her written works and lectures. It was a complete new life she wanted, and she was successful her whole life through in keeping that story the real story.

Bombay Anna shares details about Anna's family background. Readers learn about her maternal grandparents, her parents, her step-father, her siblings, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, etc. Readers learn about India in the nineteenth century. Several communities or areas are described in great detail. Bombay Anna discusses Anna's new identities and how those identities were purposefully crafted, shaped, and controlled. Time is spent discussing Anna's life before, during, and after her time in Siam. There are chapters about her role as an educator, her role as a popular lecturer and writer, and her role as a parent and grandparent. The most time is spent on her time in India, Siam, and Canada. (She spent decades of her life in Canada).

Susan Morgan's enthusiasm for the subject is evident. She at times praises and justifies Anna Leonowens creative "truth-telling." She acknowledges to a degree that Leonowens lied in her works, that she crafted her facts, that she sometimes completely embellished those facts, yet, she maintains that her works contain important truths. Morgan does spend a good deal of time discussing slavery, imperialism, and women's rights.

Bombay Anna was certainly interesting, and at times quite fascinating. While it didn't answer all my questions, it certainly provided some context! My one question remains why would she personally believe and behave in such a way in real life and then write about her experiences and present them to the world completely differently? The Anna presented in Bombay Anna was caring, compassionate, concerned. She loved the women and children she met; she valued them, respected them, wanted them to have more freedom. Yet the way she chose to write about them in her memoir was very condescending!

Favorite quotes:
Never discovered, never unmasked, Anna went on to perform that new identity for the rest of her life, actually becoming the character she had made. On the basis of her self-invention, Anna led a wildly adventurous and influential life. A world traveler, she became a well-known travel writer and public lecturer at a time when most women stayed home. She remains the one and only foreigner to spend years inside the royal harem of Siam. She crossed all of Russia on her own just before the revolution. She emigrated to the United States, mingling with the rich and famous, the literary, and political abolitionists in the Northeast, and in her seventies settled down to raise eight children. Hers was a vigorous, intense, and inspiring life. (1)
Anna stepped off that boat with a brand-new identity and began a new life. She had chosen her new biography with care. It had to be a story that would account for her having no money, no available family, and no ties to her past, and--at the same time--would render plausible that she was a gentlewoman, entitled by birth to be part of the higher social classes, and also educated enough to qualify for work as a teacher. The story Anna came up with was, in fact, a very clever choice... She was, she said, Mrs. Leonowens, born in Wales and daughter of Captain Crawford, who died heroically in the Sikh rebellion, widow of Major Thomas Leonowens, with two children born in England. She was, regrettably, without family or income. Her grief-stricken mother, widowed in Bombay, had remarried a crude and materialistic man, and brought her teenage daughters out there from England. The crass stepfather disapproved of Anna's marriage choice and all intercourse between them had ceased. Anna's first child had died in Bombay, Anna's mother died virtually the same moment, and a second baby had died in New South Wales after their ship returning to England foundered there. She and her husband, after spending time back in England where they produced two children who lived--bless the English climate!--had returned east when he was reassigned to the Straits Settlements. But all her fortune had been lost in the bank failures after the terrible Indian Mutiny, and her beloved husband was dead, prostrated by heat after a tiger hunt. She found herself, alas, alone, unprotected, with little money, and with two children to raise. But she had come to Singapore full of determination. She was, after all, a British lady, well born and well brought up, well educated and firm of character, quite the right sort of person to earn a genteel living for herself and her dear children by educating the young. And so the new Anna was born. It was an excellent role, suited both to her passionate nature, so nourished by Tom's love, and to her deep intelligence. (70-71)
The beauty of Anna's story, her virtually uncheckable story, was that all it required was that she be able to act the part. Everything depended on how well Anna could play the role, could put across her new identity as a lady. And it is a tribute to her extraordinary intelligence and the extent of her knowledge and skill that Anna was able to play the part. She definitely rose to the occasion. She met the challenge of accent, that immediate giveaway of race and class in India. She was able to speak in the tones of the British upper class and even provided herself and her accent with a little leeway by locating her birthplace in Wales. And she knew how to behave like a lady as well. (72)
Her children never doubted their heritage. The conviction that they were born in England, were British and upper class, significantly shaped both their futures. (79)
Of course there was no romantic interest between Anna and King Mongkut, on either of their parts. He was a monarch utterly engaged in protecting and improving his kingdom, and she was a teacher mourning her beloved husband and struggling to make a professional life for herself and a future for her children. To cast their relationship in the frame of conventional romance is to do an injustice to them both. And it is also to do an injustice to what really is interesting about Anna's life. We tend too often to think, as George Eliot said, that the greatest stories are those of romantic love. But there are other stories, stories of the shaping of a character or a career or a country, that are at least as passionate and as deserving of being told. One such story is that of Anna Leonowens in Siam. (103)
One advantage her background gave her was that Anna never thought it her Christian duty to try to convert her Buddhist students. She was one of those rare Christians in the East in the nineteenth century who knew better than to judge the Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus she was acquainted with as somehow inferior in their beliefs and practices. (125)

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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