The Romance of the Harem

by Anna Leonowens
Edited by Susan Morgan
(University Books in Virginia)

Review by Cathleen Myers

Yes, the author is the famous Anna Leonowens - the lovely English governess to the children of the King of Siam (Thailand) whose story is immortalized and highly romanticized in the Rogers & Hammerstein movie musical The King and I. Is the story true, you ask? Well....yes and no. Susan Morgan’s excellent introduction to this recent edition of The Romance of the Harem attempts to put the book into historical perspective.

This is Mrs. Leonowens’ second book. Her first was The English Governess at the Siamese Court, the story of her adventures teaching the Royal children, wives and concubines of King Mongut of Siam, the enlightened monarch whose even more enlightened son Prince Chulalonghorn - Anna’s star pupil - helped bring Thailand into the Twentieth Century. Everyone who’s seen the movie and the musical knows the story of the plucky widow of a British officer who stood up to her some times barbaric employer and eventually inspired him and his son and heir to greatness.

Critics - both Western and Thai - of Mrs. Leonowens’ books have pointed out that she is a highly unreliable narrator because so much of her own autobiography was sheer invention. Judging from her photographs, she was as attractive in life as she is in the films but she was actually three years older (34, not 31) than she said she was when she took the English governess position (King Mongut, incidentally, was in his sixties when he first met her, by the way, and looked nothing at all like Yul Brynner!). Mrs. Leonowens was not, as she claimed, the daughter of an army captain but the daughter of a mere sergeant. She was born, not in Wales, but in India, and her detractors have suggested that she lied to cover up a possible mixed marriage in her family. Her husband, Mr. Thomas Leon Owens, did serve in India, Singapore and Malaysia, but as a clerk, not as an army major. Even the name "Leonowens" is Owens’ romantic invention. She may have even had a scandal in her background: At the age of 15, to escape a tyrannical step father she moved into the household of an unmarried clergyman with whom she traveled extensively – not exactly a model of Victorian propriety.

Anna’s critics maintain that if she could lie so much about her own life, then her writings become suspect. Susan Morgan’s excellent introduction to The Romance of the Harem does not accept this argument, pointing out that given the severe class prejudice of the time, Anna’s "reinvention" of herself was very practical. Given her modest background, isn’t it all the more remarkable that she developed the education and writing skills that enabled her to pave a career in a man’s world?

And, yes, she is a very good writer with a gift for both narration and description. The Romance of the Harem is a series of connected short stories about the women of the Nang Harm (the City of Veiled Women), a walled city entirely populated by the women of the King’s harem - the Royal wives and concubines - their children, slaves, and the professional and craftswomen who did the actual work of the city. Critics of the book have pointed out a number of historical inaccuracies and have criticized Mrs. Leonowens’ melodramatic excesses, most notably in the tragic story of Tuptim the concubine tortured and burned at the stake for infidelity. Thai historians claim the incident was pure invention and out of character with King Mongut’s humanitarian character. The women of the harem were mostly happy with their lot, they argue, and slavery was a far more humane institution in 19th century Thailand than in the American South.

Ms. Morgan, on the other hand, observes that the book is still historically valuable as Mrs. Leonowens is almost the only Western woman who actually witnessed life in the Royal Harem - entering the Nang Harm almost daily for over five years. Morgan finds it ironic that male historians who were not eye witnesses insist that that the King’s wives and concubines were "happy" in their silken imprisonment and she scoffs at the notion of happy, singing, contented slaves (Shades of Gone with the Wind!). Conceding that much of Romance of the Harem - especially the Tuptim story – is fiction, Morgan argues that it is social protest fiction in the same genre as the novels of Charles Dickens. As one recent Thai historian has observed, Mrs. Leonowens’ book is a tribute to the women of Thailand and a plea for their social equality.

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