Title: Anna and the King of Siam
Author: Margaret Landon
Primary Format: eBook (courtesy of Netgalley and Open Road Integrated Media)
Secondary Format: audiobook (narrated by Anne Flosnik)
Start Date: November 9, 2016
End Date: November 29, 2016
Rating: 2 stars
Many of them, seeing that she was not afraid to oppose the King, imagined that she had more than human powers. So not only the poor, but the highly placed ladies of the harem came to her secretly with their grievances. Without intent, she found herself set up between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, was originally published in 1944, told the story about Anna Leonowens and her time as an English governess and teacher to the royal Siamese children. Since its publication, it has been adapted into a musical, several movies, and even a TV series. Most recently, The King and I, the musical adaptation of Landon’s work, won a 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (you can see a montage of the play here).
Landon characterized her work as around 75% fact and 25% fiction based upon fact, a lot of which she took from Anna’s own two memoirs: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873). She condensed these two autobiographical works and combined the resulting information therein with facts about Siamese culture, in an attempt to give a shorter and more concise snapshot into Anna Leonowens’s life.
However, it was not done as artfully as it could have been. I understand that this book is now over seventy years old, but the narrative was dry and often boring. One of the reasons Landon wanted to pursue this work is because Anna Leonowens often gave long, drawn-out accounts of the world around her. However, Landon’s version did not fare much better. There were long passages where the author would talk about events that were happening all over the world that had no relevance to the plot of the story.
The whole entire story seemed to be told in a nonlinear manner. Anna and the King of Siam opens up with Anna and Louie (her son) on the Siamese steamer, the Chow Phya, heading to Siam from Singapore; after this initial chapter, there were three that outlined how Anna got to that point. This was much the flow of the book. Maybe a chapter or two of narrative in the present, then a few chapters recollecting on the past, like expounding on a story of a woman that Anna was trying to help.
On top of that, there would also be letters, which I am assuming Landon found during the course of her research. However, she included so many long pieces of information that the story felt less like hers and more like she was copying and pasting from all of the information she found instead of making it uniquely her own; I understand there is only so much to be done when writing a semi-biographical story, but she could still had given it more of a unique voice.
I also was not a fan of Anna Leonowens herself. She seemed too high-and-mighty for me. She was very big on helping out her fellow women – whether slaves, members of the harem, etc. – but she seemed to praise herself for it more than was necessary. She seemed to see herself as such an awesome person for “fixing” different aspects of Eastern culture. Although she was not entirely haughty, she still could have been humbler, in my opinion. Though I will admit, that is not entirely the fault of the author, since the narrative was based upon a real person.
I also did not like the characterization of the King of Siam. The book spoke several times of his great accomplishments
For all the things I did not like, there were some redeeming qualities of the book. It was interesting to learn about some aspects of culture of the day, even if it was not all 100% accurate. The notion of female solidarity was strong. Anna Leonowens, for all of her faults, still truly cared about the children and the women in the Harem she was charged to teach, striving them to think independently and not to be limited by the fact that they were women. She also spoke out against slavery, even as the American Civil War was occurring on the other side of the world.
She took a risk by immersing herself in a culture so vastly different from her own – although she was of Welsh heritage, it is important to note that she did spend a lot of time in India and Singapore from her teens onward. For that, she should be admired.
In a time when women were not given many rights, it was nice to see a strong and independent character – even if she was a flawed English woman living in Siam – taking up the narrative.