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Item - BSL - Anna Leonowens 1908

The REAL "Anna" - Frankenstein's Great Aunt - A Must Read Story!

A Rare Signed Poem by the Woman who moved to Siam to Teach English to Royal Prince Chualalongkorn and the children of King Mongkut, Rama IV, inspired generations of Books, Plays, Movies and Musicals, and amazingly, was the unknowing Grand Aunt of Boris Karloff.



Anna Harriet Leonowens (1831 -1915)

The story of Anna Leonowens is fantastic and by that we mean unbelievable. Yet both the facts and the fictions of her life have left an enduring legacy, prompting unending debate; raising cries of racism, cultural effetism and fabrication. What is not in dispute is her indomitable spirit, her adventurous life and her devotion to women's rights, cultural causes and the arts. She was a single mother in Thailand in the 1860's and survived by her wits and determination. You simply must read her story below!!!

Anna Harriet Leonowens - Her Incredible Story

According to Anna, she was born in Wales in 1834, of a middle class family; her father an army captain; her mother from an ancient Welsh family. In 1840 Anna and a sister Eliza were left behind while their parents were posted to India. Shortly afterwards her father was killed in battle on the northwest frontier. Anna completed her education in Wales and at the age of 15 sailed for India. There her new stepfather wanted to marry her off to a wealthy merchant twice her age. To escape the situation she went on a long tour of the Middle East with a well-known oriental scholar, the Reverend Percy Badger, and his wife. Anna returned from the trip "with a character already strongly formed, both for tolerance and independence." She was independent enough to defy her stepfather and elope at the age of 17 with Captain Thomas Lorne Leonowens. They moved to London where a boy, Louis, and a girl, Avis, were born. In 1857, Leonowens, by then a major, was posted to Singapore where Anna learned that a small fortune left to her by her father had been lost in the collapse of a bank during the Indian Mutiny. A year later Major Leonowens suffered a stroke on a tiger hunt and died, leaving her with two small children and no money. She started a small school for officers' children, bringing in enough to send her daughter Avis back to England but not much more. In 1862 she accepted a position as governess to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). She and her son traveled to Siam (Thailand) where she served for the next 5 years. She subsequently wrote two books about her experiences called The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872). These stories obtained contemporary literary success and subsequently became the basis for the modern plays and movies called “Anna and the King” and “The King and I”. She later emigrated to the United States and then Canada where she founded the Victoria School of Art, now known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

There is however, another version of Anna’s life. In 1970, Dr. W.S. Bristowe, an English scholar, whose specialty was spiders and who was a frequent visitor to Thailand decided to write a biography of Anna’s son, Louis T. Leonowens, founder of the company that still bears his name. Dr Bristowe's deft detective work on Anna's past revealed an extraordinary story. After an assiduous check of English, Singapore, and Indian genealogical archives, he could find no English records of Anna’s birth or her children, nor anyone named Thomas Leonowens who had served in the army, in either India or England. Nor did the army know anything about the man Anna claimed to be her father. A diligent search of Indian Official records eventually revealed that Anna was born, not in Wales but in India, not in 1834 but in 1831. Her father was Thomas Edwards, a cabinet-maker from Middlesex who enlisted in the Bombay infantry and went to the subcontinent in 1825. There he married Mary Anne Glassock. The couple had two daughters: Eliza and Anna. Thomas died three months before the birth of Anna, leaving his wife penniless. When Anna was two months old, her mother remarried, this time to a corporal who not long afterwards was demoted to private. Anna and Eliza were sent to their father's relations in England, where they received an education. They returned to India and Eliza was married off at 15 to a 38-year-old sergeant and something similar was planned for Anna. Instead, at 14 she went off to the Middle East with the Reverend Percy Badger. How she met the clergyman (later to become a noted oriental scholar) is uncertain, as was his marital status. Anna did marry at 18, not to a dashing young officer but to a 22-year-old clerk whose name was not Leonowens but Thomas Leon Owens. He did not seem to hold any job for long and the couple moved about frequently. Anna did have two children, Louis and Avis. Thomas “Leonowens” died of apoplexy in Penang, on May 8, 1859, where he was listed as a “hotel keeper." According to Bristowe, Anna was already busily burying her past when she arrived in Singapore, so successfully that not even her own children penetrated her disguise. Among other things, this required a complete break with her sister Eliza back in India, a step she may have been doubly glad she took - given the social prejudices of the time - if word ever reached her that Eliza's eldest daughter married a Eurasian named Pratt. As thorough as ever, Dr Bristowe traced that family, too, and made the engaging discovery that the youngest child of that union - that is, Anna's grand-nephew - became the actor Boris Karloff, of Frankenstein fame!

From Hafiz the Great Persian Poet:

 “Saki! bring the imperial bowl,
 That opes, exhilarates the soul!
 The bowl, images the eternal Thine,
 The bowl, signifies the trance divine”

 A H Leonowens
 34 Monroe Place Brooklyn 18th April 1908

What is not in dispute is that Anna did receive and accept an offer to teach English to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV) for five years. After leaving Thailand, Anna spent some years in America, where her books were written, and eventually settled in Canada with her daughter. While Anna lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she pioneered many social programs and cultural institutions. One such achievement was the establishment of the Victoria School of Art, now known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She died in Montreal in 1915. Which story is the stranger I shall leave to you, but this signed poem is a rare memento from a fascinating life story. Whether her tales were fiction or fact, she was a phenomenal survivor and has left an indelible legacy of theater and art. This is the only signed document we have ever handled.

Document Specifications:  Fine Document on wove paper, watermarked "..erkshire ..edger", signed by "A.H. Leonowens" and dated "34 Monroe Place Brooklyn 18th April 1908". Page measures approximately 6 5/8w x 8 1/4h inches (170 x 210 mm). Corner fold lower right, some paper thins and adhesions on the reverse probably from a previous mounting, none affecting face or signature. Appears to be a commemoration page from a presentation book - poem by Hafiz but written out and signed by Leonowens. This is an extraordinarily rare offering as we have never seen another Leonowens' signed poem offered in the public domain. This item has been expertly and archivally framed with a printed version of the verse and biographic notation alongside.

 Offered by Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd.

End of Item - BSL - Anna Leonowens

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