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The English Governess at the Siamese Court

The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Harriette Leonowens

Anna Harriette Leonowens recounts her time as an English governess in the Siamese court in vivid detail, offering readers a fascinating glimpse into the exotic and often tumultuous world of nineteenth-century Siam. Through her eyes, we witness the complex dynamics of power and tradition at play in the royal court, as well as the cultural clashes that inevitably arise when East meets West.

Leonowens writes with both sensitivity and a keen eye for observation, bringing to life the colorful personalities of the Siamese royal family and courtiers. Her descriptions of the opulent palaces, intricate ceremonies, and sumptuous feasts provide a rich tapestry of the sights, sounds, and smells of Siam.

At the same time, Leonowens does not shy away from addressing the darker aspects of Siamese society, such as the systemic oppression of women and the rigid hierarchies that govern the lives of the courtiers. Her reflections on these issues add depth and nuance to her account, challenging readers to question their own assumptions about culture, tradition, and morality.

Overall, The English Governess at the Siamese Court is a captivating memoir that offers a unique perspective on a fascinating period in history. Leonowens' engaging prose and keen insights make this book a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of East and West, as well as the complexities of cross-cultural exchange.

Book Description:

1862 Anna Leonowens accepted an offer made by the Siamese consul in Singapore, Tan Kim Ching, to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, king of Siam. The king wished to give his 39 wives and concubines and 82 children a modern Western education on scientific secular lines, which earlier missionaries’ wives had not provided. Leonowens sent her daughter Avis to school in England, and took her son Louis with her to Bangkok. She succeeded Dan Beach Bradley, an American missionary, as teacher to the Siamese court.

Leonowens served at court until 1867, a period of nearly six years, first as a teacher and later as language secretary for the king. Although her position carried great respect and even a degree of political influence, she did not find the terms and conditions of her employment to her satisfaction, and came to be regarded by the king himself as a rather difficult woman.

In 1868 Leonowens was on leave for her health in England and had been negotiating a return to the court on better terms when Mongkut fell ill and died. The king mentioned Leonowens and her son in his will, though they did not receive the legacy. The new monarch, fifteen-year-old Chulalongkorn, who succeeded his father, wrote Leonowens a warm letter of thanks for her services.

By 1869 Leonowens was in New York, and began contributing travel articles to a Boston journal, Atlantic Monthly, including ‘The Favorite of the Harem’, reviewed by the New York Times as ‘an Eastern love story, having apparently a strong basis of truth’.She expanded her articles into two volumes of memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which earned her immediate fame but also brought charges of sensationalism. In her writing she casts a critical eye over court life; the account is not always a flattering one, and has become the subject of controversy in Thailand; she has also been accused of exaggerating her influence with the king.”

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