Anna Harriett Emma Leonowens

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Anna Harriett Emma Leonowens (Edwards)

Birthplace: British East India Company Trading Post, Ahmednagar, India
Death: January 19, 1915 (83)
Montréal, Québec, Canada
Place of Burial: Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Thomas Edwards and Mary Anne Donohoe
Wife of Thomas Leonowens
Mother of Thomas Owens; Selina Louisa Leonowens; Avis Annie Connybeare Leonowens and Louis Thomas Gunnis Leonowens
Sister of Eliza Julia Millard
Half sister of Charlotte Mary Anne Donohoe; Ellen Jane Philips/Savage (Donohoe); Mary Frederica Reifferscheid; Blanche Donohoe; Vaudrey Glascott Donohoe and 3 others

Occupation: Governess, Lecturer, suffrejette, School mistress Siamese Court
Managed by: Tim Wilkinson
Last Updated:

About Anna Harriett Emma Leonowens

Anna Leonowens (26 November 1831–19 January 1915) was an English travel writer, educator, and social activist. She worked in Siam from 1862 to 1868, where she taught the wives and children of Mongkut, king of Siam. She also co-founded the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Leonowens's experiences in Siam were fictionalised in Margaret Landon's 1944 bestselling novel Anna and the King of Siam and in various films and television miniseries based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 hit musical The King and I.

Leonowens' father died before she was born, and her mother married an Irish soldier, Corporal Patrick Donohoe of the Engineers. In 1845, her 15-year-old sister, Eliza Julia Edwards, married Edward John Pratt, a 38-year-old British civil servant who had served in the Indian Navy. One of their grandsons was the actor William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff. Because Edward John Pratt was also an Anglo-Indian, Leonowens never approved of her sister's marriage, and her disconnect from the family was so complete that decades later, when a Pratt relative contacted her, she replied threatening suicide if he persisted.

Leonowens's daughter, Avis, married Thomas Fyshe, a Scottish banker who ended the family's money worries, while her son, Louis, returned to Siam and became an officer in the Siamese royal cavalry. He married Caroline Knox, a daughter of Sir Thomas George Knox, the British consul-general in Bangkok (1824–1887), and his Thai wife, Prang Yen.[23][24][25] Under Chulalongkorn's patronage, Louis Leonowens founded the successful trading company that still bears his name. The Louis T. Leonowens Co.Ltd. is still running business in Thailand up until present time.

Bombay Anna, written by Susan Morgan, is another retelling of the life of Anna Leonowens. Morgan conducted in-depth research in the Kenneth and Margaret Landon papers seeking to reveal the history of this enigmatic figure. Anna’s origins have been less clear in years past and Morgan seeks through this volume to bring clarity to the situation. This was especially difficult because Leonowens was not truthful about her humble beginnings.

Despite her revelations to the contrary, Leonowens was born on November 26, 1831 Anna Harriett Emma Edwards in India to a British soldier and his young wife. Leonowens grew up in Army barracks amidst a diversity of ethnicities and cultures. It was a rather bleak beginning. Leonowens herself married young and continued the military connection until she found herself widowed with two small children.

Leaving India Leonowens charted a new course for her life embellishing her pedigree and credentials to become the governess to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). It was this Anna that previous biographies have presented–an upper-class British woman who faced tragic loss before becoming a beloved governess in Siam. It is this Anna immortalized in the adaptation of Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944) and later as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I.

Landon was hampered by wartime restrictions and limited access to Asian archives. Landon enjoyed great success from her book and its adaptation, which must have left her with feelings of ambivelance since she disliked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final product. Morgan reveals more about Leonowens, in part because more primary sources have become available.

Leonowens left Siam (modern-day Thailand) after five years and made her way to America where, Morgan says, another phase of embellishment began. She published The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873) to the interest of many who wanted to learn of the exotic East. Leonowens later left New York for Canada, settling in Montreal and Halifax to spend time with her daughter and grandchildren.

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Anna Harriett Emma Leonowens's Timeline

November 6, 1831
British East India Company Trading Post, Ahmednagar, India
December 6, 1831
Ahmadnagar, India
December 10, 1850
Poona, Maharashtra, India
January 24, 1853
Indian Ocean
October 25, 1854
Perth, Western Australia, Australia
October 22, 1856
Point Gregory, Western Australia, Australia
January 19, 1915
Age 83
Montréal, Québec, Canada
January 21, 1915
Age 83
Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, Quebec, Canada