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Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam by Alfred Habegger

Older readers may remember Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne’s performances in Twentieth Century Fox’s 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam. More will recall Rodgers and Hammerstein’s subsequent Broadway version, The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. That musical gained Brynner an Oscar when Twentieth Century Fox filmed it in 1956, this time with Deborah Kerr in the role of governess Anna Leonowens. Hollywood returned to the story in 1999, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat taking the leading roles. All these versions differ, but at their heart is the same uplifting tale, that of a plucky Christian English governess alone in the Siamese court, battling fearlessly for her principles against the barbarous, pagan autocracy and an exotically masculine king, and in the end leading Thailand along the path to reform and the abolition of slavery. This was the story that emerged from Margaret Landon’s supposedly non-fictional account, Anna and the King of Siam, published in 1944 as the US assumed the white man’s burden at the end of the Second World war, and so well-timed to gain acclaim and a very wide readership.

Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam by Alfred Habegger
Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam, Alfred Habegger (University of Wisconsin Press, June 2014)

Landon rescued Anna from an obscurity into which she had disappeared since her death nearly thirty years before. Nevertheless, much of her account was pure fantasy, one totally obnoxious to Thais, who objected to the portrayal of their king as a savage and to the idea that their country was reformed at the urgings of a Christian schoolteacher. The King and I was never licensed in Thailand, where Leonowens remains excoriated as a woman who betrayed her employer and host, King Mongkut, by denigrating him for commercial gain. Alfred Habbeger, Professor of English at the University of Kansas, has spent many years discovering just how mendacious Anna Leonowens really was and has now laid out the findings of his very impressive research in Masked, his massively detailed biography of Anna. This is surely one of the most thorough debunkings ever written of a historical figure.

Habbeger’s work spans many continents and fields of academic study, and his reconstruction of Anna’s life is compelling. This is a classic work of historical biography, 407 pages of text, 136 pages of notes and scholarly apparatus, admirably supported by well-presented photographs. By its close, the reader can have no doubt that Habbeger has prised from the surviving documentation the record of Anna’s life, just as he has delved into the depths of Anna’s very troubled soul. He is on a quest, it is clear, to undo the damage done by the fictional accounts of Anna’s life. He calls her on her lies and evasions at each point in her history and is scathing in his judgments of her.

The problem he faces, however, is that although he has revealed Anna Leonowens as a mountebank, a plagiarist and a fraud, he has been unable to escape the admiration he feels for the way she lived her life. The result of this schizophrenic assessment is a portrait of a woman of whom it impossible to take a comfortably unified view. Anna Leonowens remains as difficult to deal with in death as she clearly was in life.

The truth that she successfully covered up throughout her career, and the fate from which she battled successfully to make an independent life, was that she was not English, but Eurasian, with a grandmother who was the Indian bibi (native wife) of a British officer. She was also no lady, rather an offspring of a half-caste woman and an English Sergeant, schooled in the 1840s by the Bombay Education Society’s charitable school at Byculla. She escaped the fate destined for girls of her caste, who were expected to wed British Senior NCOs, by marrying instead, and against her parents’ wishes, a romantic dreamer of an Irishman. She loved him desperately, and supported all his failed endeavours in Singapore and in the desert of Western Australia until, having given her three children and no income, he died. Back in Singapore, alone and almost destitute, she unsuccessfully tried to run a school. She was saved from the ignominy of total failure by a missionary contact, who gave her the news that a vacancy was being advertised for the post of schoolmistress to the children of Mongkut, King of Siam. Taking this desperate chance and with one of her surviving two children in tow, she sailed for Thailand, leaving behind her origins and even her family, from whom she then irrevocably cut all ties. By the time her ship arrived in Bangkok, she had become an English lady and there was no one there to say any different.

Bangkok was a frighteningly lonely place to be a single mother who spoke no Thai and understood little of what went on around her. Yet, despite occasional breakdowns and conflict, she survived. In 1867, after five years in post and when she could stand it no more, she sailed to America, where she was taken up, again through missionary circles, by the New England establishment. She crafted a new life and character for herself as a lecturer and writer, an upstanding English lady with a steely demeanour who brooked no criticism. She was, for six years from 1870-1876, something of a celebrity, her fame based upon her own accounts of her life in Thailand and on her books about it: The English Governess at the Siamese Court of 1870 and The Romance of the Harem of 1873. In these, she blackened the character of Mongkut, the sovereign for whom she worked, invented stories of the cruelties of Thai punishments and life in the harem, copied out large chunks of other people’s travelogues and established her own image as a teacher of forthright, unyielding, democratic principles who bravely defied the corrupt and uncivilised monarch who was her employer. She even claimed, utterly wrongly, that her counsel had liberated Thailand from slavery.

As the years passed, she became a formidable prisoner of her own self-created image. In her lifetime, she successfully faced down all those who had the temerity to point out her falsehoods. She even pulled this off when in London she confronted by King Chulalongkorn, Mongkut’s successor, who tearfully asked her how she could have told such lies about his father. She would have none of it, and stoutly told the monarch that he was wrong and she right.

This conflicting picture of a successful life built upon falsehoods discomforts Habegger and can but do the same to his readers. Anna Leonowens defeated every social taboo facing a poor, uneducated, Eurasian girl in the patriarchal, hierarchical, class and race-bound British Empire. She did this so triumphantly that no one nowadays knows anything other than the story she invented. It is clear to the reader that even Habegger doubts that his unmasking of her fraudulence will be insufficient to overturn the legend.

So Anna Leonowens won in the utterly surprising race she made of her life, but she did so at great cost to her own soul and to those upon whose lives she trampled. Ultimately hers was a magnificently isolated triumph. Albert Habbeger has revealed for us the reality behind that triumph and has brought back to life a really remarkable woman.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.