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The English Governess at the Siamese Court
By Anna Leonowens
Read By Nadia May

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The English Governess at the Siamese Court

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The English Governess at the Siamese Court
By Anna Leonowens
Read by Nadia May
Blackstone Audiobooks, (2000)
Ordinally published in 1870
An unabridged audiobook, recorded on 8 audio cassettes
ISBN: 0-7861-2051-7
Genre: History, Memoir

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 2, 2001

In 1862, Anna Harriette Leonowens ne Crawford and her young son arrived in the city of Bangkok. Bangkok was the capital of Siam, a country which is now known as Thailand. She had been hired to act as the governess to the King of Siam's children, a formidable task as the King had over sixty children at the time of her arrival. This book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, recounts the almost six years that Anna spent at the Siamese Court.

Anna was a young widow with two small children. She was born in 1834 in Wales, and in 1851 married Major Thomas Leonowens, an officer in the Indian Army. She was widowed in 1858 and settled in Singapore with her children. That is until she received word that the King of Siam was looking for an English woman to educate his children. With unbelievable spunk and energy, Anna accepted the challenge. She appears to have been a remarkably open minded and adventurous woman, especially for a Victorian era widow. Her only chaperon on this adventure was her young son.

Just as remarkable as Anna, was the King of Siam. His full title was King P'hra Parawendt Maha Mongkut, but he also went by the much shorter title of King Rama IV. Mongkut spent 27 years as a Buddhist Monk before ascending the throne of Siam. Shortly after become king, he quickly acquired a huge harem, and began producing a prodigious number of children. Despite the sheer number of children, Anna's memoir indicates that he truly seems to have cared for some, if not all of them. For example, when a young princess, Somdetch Chow Fa-ying dies, Anna recounts how the king went into severe mourning for her. Mongkut was an educated and far thinking man who enacted many reforms in the country, both political and social. The King was fluent in English, and he wanted his wives and children to learn English also. At first they were taught by the wives of missionaries, but his wives quickly grew tired of their preaching. Consequently, the King sought out a teacher who would educate his family, without trying to convert them to Christianity. This is the post which was accepted by Anna Leonowens.

This audiobook edition of The English Governess at the Siamese Court begins with a biographical sketch of the author that helps you to understand her mind set. Yes, she was biased and felt that, as an English woman, she was automatically superior to the 'barbarians' that she was hired to teach. But she was also open minded enough to realized that the people of Siam had a lot to teach her. Based on her experiences in Siam she wrote two hugely popular books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, published in 1870 and The Romance of the Harem which was published in 1872. The first book was the basis for Margaret Landon's book, Anna and the King of Siam, and a movie by the same name. It was also the basis for several Broadway and cinematic productions of The King and I, and the film, Anna and the King.

This is an astounding memoir. It not only chronicles the events in Anna's life, but it also offers the reader detailed description of the land of Siam, including its building and the people who inhabited the land. It also offers a glimpse into a bygone era, illustrating various aspects of Siamese Court life, English colonial sentiments, and provides an intimate portrait of Siamese society. Anna's book has enthralled generations of readers, introducing them to Siam and its vibrant culture and ancient rituals. Throughout her time in Siam, Anna toured around the county and visited many important landmarks. Her descriptions of her travels and detailed descriptions of the buildings she viewed greatly enhance this memoir by helping to bring the region to life.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court is not just the wide-eyed musing of an adventurous woman. This book also takes a straightforward look at the conflicts that arose between Anna and Mongkut. These conflicts touched upon almost every subject, ranging from slavery to grammar. Anna was stubborn and overworked, whereas the King, as supreme ruler of the country, had never had anyone talk back to him. Consequently, according to the book, their confrontations tended to somewhat fiery.

For the most part, this book has a ring of truth. Anna's descriptions seem sincere, but there are times when its appears that she has taken some liberties with her story. According to the book she spent a great deal of her time championing the rights for the poor, those in slavery, and the rights of women and children. Even more fantastic, if you are to believe the book, she waged a one woman crusade to oppose all the cruelties and inequalities inherent in Siam. Even if these claims are just exaggerations, it is still little wonder that the King thought her, "...difficult." If the claims are factual, I find it amazing that the King would put up with her for so long.

Interestingly, Anna recounts how she was constantly watched while at the court. Her duties were not relegated to just being a teacher, she also acted, on occasion, as the King's secretary. The multiple tasks that she was charged with performing increased over time. As her work load expanded, and her salary remained the same, her position began to loose it glamour. She also began to suspect that some of the King's ministers might be planning to do her bodily harm due to her interference with their jobs and interaction with the King. Consequently, she asked for a leave of absence to "rest" in Singapore. Her hope was that the King would regret her loss and summon her back - at a higher salary and with more freedom. This was not to happen. Anna was out of the country when King Mongkut died and the new king made a point of not asking her back. Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the country never dampened. Throughout this book enthusiastically gives the reader a glimpse of the Siamese culture, history, court life, religious practices, and diet. She also looks at the relationship between men and women, royalty and commoner, and Siamese citizens and their interaction with foreigners.

This is a wonderful memoir. The writing is intriguing and the setting is exquisite. The reader of this unabridged audio recording of the book, Nadia May has a lovely voice and she brings to the reading an exuberance that matches Anna's writing style exactly. I was particularly pleased at May's ability to pronounce the various Siamese name accurately, and seamlessly. It is very easy to see, with the mind's eye, Anna speaking with May's refined English voice. This book is perfect for someone looking for an exotic book to read, as well as students and history buffs looking for a first hand account of life in Siam in the 1860's. Just be forewarned; Anna's account may not be historically accurate. It is obvious that she took some liberties with the fact. As well, she was writing from a euro-centric viewpoint that colored her perceptions of Siam. Even with this in mind, this is a phenomenal book.


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