The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor
“Thanks to Alfred Habegger’s careful detective work in archives scattered across five continents, we find out, layer by layer, what lay behind Anna Leonowens’s inventions, which she took much trouble to hide and deny.”
A brave British widow goes to Siam and—by dint of her principled and indomitable character—inspires 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 dreams—in 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.
“Alfred Habbeger has spent many years discovering just how mendacious Anna Leonowens really was and has now laid out the findings of his very impressive research in Masked, his massively detailed biography of Anna. This is surely one of the most thorough debunkings ever written of a historical figure. . . . Anna Leonowens defeated every social taboo facing a poor, uneducated, Eurasian girl in the patriarchal, hierarchical, class and race-bound British Empire. She did this so triumphantly that no one nowadays knows anything other than the story she invented. . . . Habegger has revealed for us the reality . . . and has brought back to life a really remarkable woman.”
—Nigel Collett, Asian Review of Books
“Masked is not just a book about Anna Leonowens; it is also more compellingly a history of why Americans so avidly took up her story.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Masked reveals the historical truth behind the legendary Anna Leonowens, the woman who would become the famous teacher of the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the heyday of British imperialism. Habegger’s more important story is his critical account of U.S. cultural imperialism, which turned Anna Leonowens’s Asian adventures into moral exempla for America’s global expansion, portrayed in the Broadway musical and popular film The King and I. With scrupulous and original scholarship, Habegger exposes the ugly imperialist meaning of one of our most cherished fantasies of the self-reliant Western woman. This book speaks powerfully to our contemporary moment.”
—John Carlos Rowe, University of Southern California
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