Anna Leonowens

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Anna Leonowens (26 November 1831–19 January 1915) was an English travel writer, educator, and social activist, known for working in Siam from 1862–1868, where she taught the wives and children of Mongkut, king of Siam. She is also known for co-founding 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.


Early life and family

Anna Leonowens was born Anna Harriette Edwards in Ahmadnagar, India on 26 November 1831. She was the second daughter of Sergeant Thomas Edwards of the Sappers and Miners, a former London cabinetmaker, and his Anglo-Indian wife, Mary Anne Glasscott, daughter of a lieutenant in the Bombay Army. In later life Leonowens was estranged from her family and took pains to disguise her modest origins by writing that she had been born a Crawford in Caernarfon and giving her father's rank as captain. By doing so, she protected not only herself but her children, who would have greater opportunities if their mixed-race heritage remained unknown. Investigations uncovered no record of her birth at Caernarfon, news which came as a shock to the town that had long claimed her as one of its most famous natives.[1]

Leonowens' father died before she was born, and her mother married an Irish soldier, Corporal Patrick Donohoe of the Engineers, who was later awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in Bombay during the Indian Mutiny. 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. Eliza and Edward had a son, Edward John Pratt, Jr., who in 1887, with his wife, Eliza Sarah Millard, had a son named William Henry Pratt, better known as film star Boris Karloff. Because Pratt Sr. 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.[2]

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