Thursday, November 28, 2013

The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Harriette Leonowens

Free US/UK Kindle Classic
"The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok" is an 1870 memoir by Anna Harriette Leonowens. (US Edition)  (UK Edition)  Leonowens was a British woman born in India, who taught the wives and children of the King of Siam.  The memoir was the basis for a 1940's bestseller, which in turn was the basis for the musical, "The King and I."  So this memoir is twice removed from the film musical with Yul Brynner.

The book talks about Buddhism (quoting another book.)  "It is difficult to comprehend how men, not aided by revelation, could have soared so high and approached so near the truth. Beside the five great commandments,—not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to get drunk,—every shade of vice, hypocrisy, anger, pride, suspicion, greed, gossip, cruelty to animals, is guarded against by special precepts. Among the virtues commended we find, not only reverence for parents, care for children, submission to authority, gratitude, moderation in time of prosperity, resignation and fortitude in time of trial, equanimity at all times, but virtues unknown to any heathen system of morality, such as the duty of forgiving insults, and of rewarding evil with good."

But she also talks about her students in the harem:

"I was often alone in the school-room, long after my other charges had departed, with a pale, dejected woman, whose name translated was "Hidden-Perfume." As a pupil she was remarkably diligent and attentive, and in reading and translating English, her progress was extraordinary. Only in her eager, inquisitive glances was she child-like; otherwise, her expression and demeanor were anxious and aged. She had long been out of favor with her "lord"; and now, without hope from him, surrendered herself wholly to her fondness for a son she had borne him in her more youthful and attractive days. In this young prince, who was about ten years old, the same air of timidity and restraint was apparent as in his mother, whom he strikingly resembled, only lacking that cast of pensive sadness which rendered her so attractive, and her pride, which closed her lips upon the past, though the story of her wrongs was a moving one."
This book is controversial in Thailand for the picture it presents of a court with slaves and harsh punishments that appear arbitrary to our sensibilities.

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