Bombay Anna by Susan Morgan

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Bombay-AnnaYou’ve likely never heard of Bombay Anna.  But I bet you have heard of Mrs Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of the King of Siam.

If you’ve ever seen the movie or stage version of the King and I, you’ve seen Mrs Anna.

Mrs Anna, however, was far more than a figment of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s imaginations.

Anna was born in 1831, a poor, mixed-race army brat in India. There she married an English soldier, Private Thomas Leon Owens, and with him had four children.  Between 1853 and 1857 the couple and their children lived in Western Australia, at the Swan River settlement (Perth) but they didn’t prosper and moved instead to Singapore, where two years later Thomas died.

In a magnificent (or, depending on your point of view, malevolent) feat of re-invention Anna Owens faked her genteel Welsh background, promoted her late husband from private to major and changed her name to become  Mrs Anna Leonowens: travel writer, journalist, lecturer and teacher.  She remains the only foreigner to have ever spent significant time inside the royal harem of Siam.

Eventually Anna emigrated to the United States, crossed the entire expanse of Russia on her own just before the Bolshevik revolution, and settled in Canada where she publicly defended the rights of women and the working class.

In a wonderful coincidence Anna’s English grandfather was the Reverend Glascott,  part of the revivalist Methodist movement.  In December 1781 “he accepted a poorly paid position in the little town of Hatherleigh in Devon.” (Bombay Anna, page 15).  Glascott, his wife and family stayed there for the next fifty years.   Hatherleigh is only 18 miles to the east of Bridgerule, the home of Elizabeth Macarthur.  In 1781 Elizabeth was fifteen and spending much of her time with the family of the local vicar, Reverend Kingdon.  The nearby appointment of a a former travelling preacher, a Methodist no less (Glascott was always the only one in the region), would surely have been a topic of lively dinner-table discussion.

Published in 2008, I remember thinking at the time that this book did not receive the coverage it deserved.  It is a rich, engaging read.

There is a short review in the New York Times.

And a much longer one on New Mandala, a blog hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific (provides anecdote, analysis and new perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia).   “Bombay Anna is an ambitious, engaging, informative work of scholarship, one that is hard not to rate a genuine success. I do nonetheless have some relatively minor cavils about Morgan’s book….”   Read the full review here.

The entertainment section of the Sydney Morning Herald has an article about actor Lisa McCune in the latest stage iteration of The King and I, which provides an overview of the many different versions of Anna’s life – including Morgan’s biography.  Read the article here.

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2 responses »

  1. I can see why Elizabeth Marsh reminded you of this book. The long review you linked to is interesting too, although unduly harsh, I think, in criticizing the introduction which contextualized Anna amongst other invented ‘celebrity’ characters. And an Australian connection as well! It sounds like a good read- I’ll look out for it.

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  2. Anna’s story does make me wonder how many other women re-invented themselves. It’s a bold step but, under the circumstances, a sensible one. And perhaps in some ways much easier to get away with in those days.
    BTW, yesterday I listened to your interview with John Faine via podcast. You sounded terrifically articulate and knowledgeable (probably because you are!). Great interview.

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