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A brave British widow goes to Siam andby dint of her principled and indomitable characterinspires that despotic nation to abolish slavery and absolute rule: this appealing legend first took shape after the Civil War when Anna Leonowens came to America from Bangkok and succeeded in becoming a celebrity author and lecturer. Three decades after her death, in the 1940s and 1950s, the story would be transformed into a powerful Western myth by Margaret Landon’s best-selling book Anna and the King of Siam and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I.
But who was Leonowens and why did her story take hold? Although it has been known for some time that she was of Anglo-Indian parentage and that her tales about the Siamese court are unreliable, not until now, with the publication of Masked, has there been a deeply researched account of her extraordinary life. Alfred Habegger, an award-winning biographer, draws on the archives of five continents and recent Thai-language scholarship to disclose the complex person behind the mask and the troubling facts behind the myth. He also ponders the curious fit between Leonowens’s compelling fabrications and the New World’s innocent dreamsin particular the dream that democracy can be spread through quick and easy interventions.
Exploring the full historic complexity of what it once meant to pass as white, Masked pays close attention to Leonowens’s midlevel origins in British India, her education at a Bombay charity school for Eurasian children, her material and social milieu in Australia and Singapore, the stresses she endured in Bangkok as a working widow, the latent melancholy that often afflicted her, the problematic aspects of her self-invention, and the welcome she found in America, where a circle of elite New England abolitionists who knew nothing about Southeast Asia gave her their uncritical support. Her embellished story would again capture America’s imagination as World War II ended and a newly interventionist United States looked toward Asia.
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
Best Regional Special Interest Boosk, selected by the Public Library Reviewers
About the Author
Alfred Habegger is professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas. His previous biographies are The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. and the highly acclaimed My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. He lives in northeast Oregon.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: America's Anna
Before Bangkok: 17391862
1 Descent from the Gentry
2 A Hard School
3 The Unnamed Stepfather
4 Travel and Study with the Badgers
5 Beloved Wife of Thomas Leonowens
6 Selina's Death and Keesah's Last Long Look
7 An Accidental Life in Perth, Western Australia
8 The Convict Hiring Depot at Lynton
9 Widowed in the Straits Settlements
10 King Mongkut of Siam
11 The English School Mastress Comes to Bangkok
12 Anna and the Siamese Understanding of Human Sexuality
13 A Teacher Strained at Every Point
14 The Death of Fa-Ying
15 The Slave Chained to the Ground
16 A Troubled Crusader
17 Getting in Deeper: Son Klin in the Dungeon
18 Anna and Tuptim
19 Leaving Bangkok
After Bangkok: 18671915
20 The English Governess Comes to America
21 Success and Decline
Afterlife: 1944 to the Present
22 Raised from the Dead by Margaret Landon
23 Anna in Hollywood and on Broadway
Family Chart for Anna Leonowens
Family Chart for Anna's Spouse, Thomas Leonowens
Appendix: Anna's Plagiarisms
Permissions and Photo Credits
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read both Anna Leonowens books on Thailand, followed by this biography. Fascinating to compare, contrast, investigate, and form ones own opinions about the events, characters, and motives of those put under the microscope. This is well-researched and extremely engaging...a perfect way to round out the study. Thank you.