Mongkut and I

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Romance of the Harem by Anna Leonowens, edited by Susan Morgan
    Virginia, 285 pp, £10.50, August 1991, ISBN 0 8139 1328 4

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I, the English governess quarrels with her royal employer over his refusal to provide her with a separate house, outside the harem walls. Alone in her room afterwards, Anna takes her revenge with a spirited patter song, indignantly denouncing the King as a ‘conceited, self-indulgent libertine’ and seizing the occasion to inform him in – absentia – of ‘certain goings on around this place/That I wish to tell you I do not admire.’

I do not like polygamy
Or even moderate bigamy
(I realise
That in your eyes
That clearly makes a prig o’ me)
But I am from a civilised land called Wales,
Where men like you are kept in county gaols.

In your pursuit of pleasure, you
Have mistresses who treasure you
(They have no ken
Of other men
Beside whom they can measure you).
A flock of sheep, and you the only ram –
No wonder you’re the wonder of Siam!

It’s a marvellous bit of musical theatre, but the attack bears little resemblance to the protests that the original Anna levelled at the Siamese ruler. The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), Anna Leonowens’s first book about her years in Siam, dryly alluded to ‘his Excellency’s private Utah’, but neither that book nor The Romance of the Harem (1872), which has been reprinted by the University of Virginia Press, seems especially troubled by the practice of polygamy or the love-life of the King. Leonowens was as much a romancer in her own way as Rodgers and Hammerstein were in theirs, but she plotted against the effective slavery of harem life, not its erotic arrangements.

Hired by King Mongkut in 1862 to instruct his children in English language and literature – and explicitly enjoined to avoid the proselytising of the missionary wives who had preceded her – Anna Leonowens remained in Siam for five years. (Not, strictly speaking, ‘in’ the harem. She came and went freely, and eventually won the right to a separate residence.) Though both her books about Siam achieved some measure of attention at the time they appeared, they had long been out of print when an American, Margaret Landon, wove them together with some other biographical evidence to produce the best-selling Anna and the King of Siam in 1944. The first film, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, soon followed. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical comedy opened on Broadway in 1951, with Yul Brynner as the King and Gertrude Lawrence as Anna. Deborah Kerr took Anna’s part when the musical in turn became a movie, while Brynner continued to reign as the King – as he did in many minds for decades after.

In the West, at least, serious accounts of King Mongkut (1804-68) repeatedly express frustration at the way the historical figure has been swallowed up in the popular caricature. A moderate reformer who opened his country to Western influence while deftly managing to preserve its independence, Mongkut was effectively the architect of modern Thailand. No doubt most fans of The King and I suspected that Broadway’s Siam was far from the real thing, even if they had only the shadowiest idea of where or what that reality might be. At the same time, knowing that the musical Anna’s adventures at court were based, however loosely, on actual experience, makes the illusion of intimacy with historical personages hard to shake. Like most such fictions, the various versions of Anna’s story attempted to have it both ways. While the credits for The King and I prudently announced that it was based on the ‘novel’ by Margaret Landon, the accompanying publicity made the audience aware of the historical existence of its principal characters. Landon herself had advertised ‘the fabric content’ of her book as ‘75 per cent fact, and 25 per cent fiction based on fact’. As for Leonowens, by calling her second book The Romance of the Harem, she may well have meant to signal that the work was best not approached too literally. That her preface nonetheless insisted on the truthfulness of her tales should not necessarily cost her her novelist’s licence, since as Susan Morgan observes, ‘there is a long and honourable tradition in English fiction of insisting that a particular book is actually true.’ On the other hand, as Morgan also acknowledges, this particular romance happened to accuse a prominent figure, recently dead, of grisly deeds he seems not to have performed.

Fact and fiction in Leonowens’s case are further complicated by her liberal rewriting of her own history. Morgan cites the 1976 revelations of W.S. Bristowe, author of a study of Leonowens’s son Louis, that the mother systematically altered the less respectable details of her life. She was not, in fact, Mrs Leonowens, widow of Major Thomas Leonowens of the Indian Army, but the widow of a mere Mr Owens (given name, Thomas Leon), identified on his death certificate as a ‘Hotel Master’ in the British settlement of Penang. Her father was a poor army sergeant named Edwards, not the captain named Crawford she had claimed. Before her marriage the teenage Anna did indeed travel through the Middle East with a Reverend Mr Badger, as she reported – but whether or not they were embarked on the ‘educational tour’ she portrayed, Anna’s account supplied her 30-year-old mentor with a wife he apparently lacked at the time. When the Reverend Badger did later marry, curiously enough, he chose a woman several years younger than Anna. Despite her claim to have come from that civilised land called Wales, the evidence indicates that Leonowens was born in India.

If the tales Leonowens told about herself were an attempt to acquire middle-class respectability, as Morgan plausibly argues, the tales she told about the women of Siam accorded them something like glory. Unlike The English Governess, which offers a more or less coherent narrative with Anna and the King as principal figures, The Romance of the Harem is a series of loosely connected saints’ lives or heroic tales: tales in which female slaves, concubines and princesses alike repeatedly perform acts of fantastic courage, self-sacrifice and loyalty. Indeed, just as the King himself remains for the most part a shadowy figure in this volume, the few men who appear at all play strictly subordinate roles as lovers, husbands or brothers, their deeds at best a pale reflection of the transcendent heroism of the women. A young Buddhist priest perishes on the stake together with Tuptim, the runaway concubine who loves him, but it is her trial, torture and sanctification on which the narrative concentrates, as the ‘simple child was transfigured into a proud, heroic woman’ who calmly suffers herself to be burned alive rather than betray the priest or the female slave who aided her escape. In a subsequent tale, a devoted Laotian slave-woman stages a daring rescue of her mistress, a princess who has been immured in the palace, and then cuts her own tongue out lest she confess and betray her accomplices under torture. Her sacrifice is rendered all the more poignant because it was by means of that same silver tongue that the slave, who happens also to be an extraordinarily accomplished musician and singer, had previously served as a successful go-between for her mistress. When Leonowens watches the beautiful slave urging her bold rescue plan on the princess’s brother, she has no doubt whose character is superior: ‘The two faces presented the strongest contrast possible, the one dark, troubled, impetuous and weak; the other resolute, passionate, unchangeable and brave.’ Indeed, whether she is commenting on one man’s physiognomy (‘handsome, for a Siamese’) or another’s tyranny, Leonowens tends to make the men in her account bear the full brunt of her racist presumptions: the women of the harem are not so much orientals as angels.

In yet another tale, a devoted wife who learns that her husband has developed a passion for the King’s current favourite secretly sells herself to the other woman as a slave in order to facilitate the affair. Only when she is discovered and about to be tortured does she reveal her identity to her new mistress, but while under torture she typically refuses to reveal the name of the man they both love. The King’s favourite, unfortunately, proves less resilient, and the lover, too, is captured and killed. But the real turn of the narrative comes with the favourite’s belated conversion by her former slave’s example: having begun her life in the harem by feverishly aspiring to please one man, only to fall passionately in love with another, she ends by longing for the death that would reunite her with her ‘beloved’ slave. The man who brought the two women together appears to have been totally forgotten.

Despite the assurances of one of the most famous songs in The King and I, the original Anna would appear likewise to have forgotten Tom Owens. While Broadway’s widow proudly informed the ‘young lovers’ of the harem – and the audience – that she, too, had known what it was to love, lyrically recalling a certain night ‘When the earth smelled of summer ... And the soft mist of England/Was sleeping on a hill’, the author of The Romance of the Harem makes no mention of nights with Tom, misty or otherwise. The only moment at which she briefly recalls the experience of an earlier love occurs in The English Governess, when she finally moves into the separate residence she has bargained for with the King and prepares ‘to queen it in my own palace’. In light of the female romance that so dominates her vision of the harem, it may not be surprising that these ‘lender memories’ concern her mother.

Only in one oddly interpolated tale – a tale not, in fact, set in Mongkut’s harem – does a man rival his daughter in self-sacrifice. Unlike most of the narratives, which Morgan thinks may have some foundation in Leonowens’s experience, this account of ‘The Rajpoot and His Daughter’ appears to have been borrowed and freely adapted from Indian legend. Though Morgan does not speculate why Leonowens included it here, the devotion of father and daughter begins when the former, moved by the last words of his dying wife, spontaneously decides not to perform the customary act of female infanticide. And at least as Leonowens tells it, this tale, too, has its moment when the female romance proves stronger than that between the sexes. Having sold herself to the wicked duke who lusts after her, in order to save the life of her father, the Rajpoot’s daughter is discovered weeping in terror by the duchess. ‘The true woman triumphed in the “wife”,’ Leonowens characteristically writes of the duchess, ‘for she put out her arms, and raised the forlorn stranger to her bosom, and comforted her with such words as women who have great and loving hearts only can.’ As at many other moments in The Romance of the Harem, Leonowens’s oriental women speak with the accents of domestic sentimentalism.

In The English Governess Leonowens introduced the ‘romantic and mournful’ story of one of the harem’s outcasts, a woman whose name she translates as ‘Hidden Perfume’. Neglected by the King, at one point cruelly imprisoned and whipped for a minor bureaucratic transgression, Hidden Perfume finds solace as Anna’s student and as a reader of Harriet Beecher Stowe. At a climactic moment in The Romance of the Harem, she summons Anna to her residence, gathers together all her slave-women and their children (‘one hundred and thirty-two in all, in nice new dresses’), and pronounces them free. ‘I am wishful to be good like Harriet Beecher Stowe,’ she is quoted as declaring, ‘and never to buy human bodies again, but only to let go free once more, and so I have now no more slaves, but hired servants. I have given freedom to all of my slaves to go or to stay with me as they wish.’ From then on, according to Anna, ‘she always signed herself Harriet Beecher Stowe.’ Leonowens’s years in Siam coincided, of course, with those of the Civil War in America; and by the time she subsequently settled in the States and wrote her reminiscences, she had become good friends with the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though she did not go so far as to adopt her friend’s signature, Leonowens was obviously marked by Stowe’s influence. When she writes in her first book about the last moments of the saintly Fa-ying, the King’s favourite daughter, it is hard not to feel oneself at the Siamese deathbed of Little Eva. Even as Leonowens vehemently attacks the institution of slavery, however, her representations of the harem tend not to distinguish very much between the most favoured of royal concubines and the slave-women who serve them. ‘We are all prisoners here,’ she reports the King’s head wife as declaring; and whether or not this was what Lady Thieng said, it clearly represents Leonowens’s own view of the women’s condition. Ellen Moers long ago observed how 19th-century women writers adopted the rhetoric of abolitionism for the cause of their sex: it remains unclear whether Leonowens would have pursued the analogy on home territory.

Rodgers and Hammerstein brilliantly capitalised on these various reflections of Stowe’s novel when they had Jerome Robbins choreograph a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the women of the harem, with the soon to be runaway Tuptim in the role of Eliza, fleeing the cruelty of ‘King Simon of Legree’. While the ballet has no precise analogue in Leonowens’s work, it makes for an inspired scene, at once true to the spirit of its source and free to exploit the rich stage tradition that had grown from Stowe’s novel. But very little else of The Romance of the Harem made it to Broadway. The only one of the book’s heroic women to appear in The King and I is, in fact, Tuptim, and her story is significantly softened for the musical’s audience. When she is caught after having tried to run away, the King attempts to beat her but is so unmanned by Anna’s disapproval that he drops his whip and runs from the room. Though Tuptim then learns that her lover has been found dead and predicts that she will soon follow him, both the manner of his death and the fact of hers go unspoken. In Leonowens’s version, the King not only decreed that the concubine and her lover be burned at the stake, but was so furious with the teacher for pleading on their behalf that he arranged for the scaffold to be erected immediately outside her window, compelling her to witness their final agony. Unfortunately for her subsequent reputation, Leonowens appears to have been the only witness: as with many of the more gruesome acts which she attributes to the King, her account of this immolation is uncorroborated. A.B. Griswold, a historian who showed how Leonowens plagiarised several other atrocities that she attributed to Mongkut from narratives and legends of earlier reigns, suggested that the lovers may owe their fate to an old song about a guilty priest and his lover reported by one of her sources. The translation she would have encountered has its moments of black comedy:

Behold the faggots blaze up high,
The smoke is black and dense;
The sinews burst, and crack, and fly:
Oh suffering intense!

Though Griswold’s attack on Leonowens as a historian is difficult to counter, his assurance that the vast majority of the women of the harem ‘were contented with their lot’ is surely open to question, as Morgan argues. In one of her more persuasively understated moments, Leonowens herself described ‘the general atmosphere’ in the harem as ‘that of depression’. Morgan’s shrewd introduction makes a good case for understanding Leonowens’s wilder exaggerations as true to the structure of oppression she witnessed, if not to the actual deeds of Mongkut himself. Though this feminist reading will not solve all the moral problems raised by the work, it goes a good way toward making sense of its more fantastic inventions.

One might only add that other kinds of wish may also have helped to shape the narrative as Leonowens tells it. The Romance of the Harem concludes the year after her departure from Siam, when King Chulalongkorn, her pupil and Mongkut’s successor, officially decreed the abolition of slavery in his country. According to Leonowens, this was the man who, ‘when a mere boy, on hearing of the death of President Lincoln ... had declared that if he ever lived to reign over Siam, he “would reign over a free and not an enslaved nation”.’ Modern historians of Thailand tend to see the son as continuing and extending the reforms initiated by his father. No doubt this is the more plausible account of how change comes about, but it makes for a story far less satisfying to the teacher.