Anna Harriette Leonowens, born November 5, 1831, was a British author and educator. She is primarily known for her travel writing, specifically her memoirs which were the basis of Margaret Langdon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn was the basis for Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I.
Anna was born in India to Mary Glascott and Thomas Edwards, the second of two girls. Thomas died before she was born and her mother married a soldier named Patrick Donohoe. In 1847, the family moved to Aden, a city in Yemen, where Anna was schooled by missionaries George Percy Badger and his wife Maria. Recognizing her ability they took her on what would be the first of many travels, a tour of Egypt and Palestine in 1849. When she returned, she married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens, who later merged his names into Leonowens.
In 1852, Anna (calling herself Harriette) and Thomas traveled to Australia. Thomas had no trouble finding work as a clerk and Anna made her first attempt to open a school for girls. Her surviving children were born here as well. Their son Thomas, born on board ship on the way to Perth, died in March of 1854 but soon after Anna gave birth to a daughter, Avis, and a son named Louis. In the spring of 1857, the family moved on to Singapore and Penang (present-day Malasia,) where Thomas worked as a hotel keeper.
Although Thomas seems to have had no trouble finding work, when he died in May of 1859 Anna was a widow without resources. She returned to Singapore and again opened a school which helped establish her reputation as a teacher. In 1862, she received an offer to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, King of Siam. She accepted and remained there for close to six years. While on leave in England in 1868, Mongkut died and although she received a letter of thanks from the new king, he didn’t offer her the option of resuming her post.
For the rest of her life, Anna Leonowens would teach, travel, lecture and write, beginning with travel articles and her memoirs. She spent the first nine or ten years based in the United States before moving to Canada to live with her daughter where she died on January 19, 1915.
Find out what else happened on November 5 in Women’s History.