Fiction – print. Harper Perennial, 1999. Originally published 1944. 416 pgs. Purchased.
Published in 1944, Landon’s novel is actually derived from her main character’s two memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (published in 1870) and Romance of the Harem (published in 1872). Landon states in the preface that she enhanced Anna Leonownes’ first-person narratives with details about the Siamese people and their culture culled from other sources and her own time living in the country.
Fans of “The King and I” will recognize only a few chapters of this book; Anna’s arrival and the death of King Mongkut’s favorite daughter all play out as they do in the movie/play. These moments constitute only a small fraction of the overall book and almost seem to distract from the overall message that Anna Leonowens changed the course of Siamese (Thai) history because she introduced the young prince Chulalongkorn to Western ideals. Under her tutelage, he learned about Abraham Lincoln and the tenants of democracy that would be the foundation of his progressive actions that abolished slavery and transformed Siam from a feudal state to a modern society.
This statement, however, is denied by Chulalongkorn, his descendants, and historians, and the book was denounced by the government of Thailand and banned from the country until very recently. I certainly can understand this action because the book reeks of xenophobia. The Siamese people are clearly inferior to the British woman who has come to educate them on their evil, backwards ways. I expected there to be some xenophobia considering the year the book was published and that is not entirely why I disliked the novel.
Frankly, the book is long and dry. A very tedious read that failed to move me at the most emotionally impactful moments; I didn’t even cry when King Mongkut’s daughter died!