Leonowens, Anna. “Life and Travel in India by Anna Harriette Leonowens.” Project Gutenberg, www.owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/. Accessed 2 March 2018.

This work is available for free online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52896

Anna Leonowens (1834-1915)

Anna Leonowens is an intriguing historical figure. She is most popularly known as the inspiration behind Anna in the musical The King and I, which was based on her travel writing in The English Governess at the Siamese Court. She often wrote in support of women’s rights. Although she is commonly thought to be white and British, Leonowens was born in India, and her grandmother was probably of Anglo-Indian mixed race. This heritage, if discovered, would surely have negatively impacted Leonowens’s opportunities in British-occupied India; she appears to have gone to some lengths to hide it, including by claiming she was born in Wales (Morgan).

Life and Travel in India
Life and Travel in India is a richly-descriptive book describing Leonowens’s experiences traveling in India. It is lesser-known than her writings about Siam. As a woman, Leonowens was allowed entry to women’s-only areas in India; she has therefore written about spaces that British male travel writers could not see. 

Our readers might be particularly interested in her observations of dancing girls and devadasis (referred to in this book as “bayahdiers”). In Chapter VIII, she watches a performance of dancing girls, speaks to the owner of an establishment of dancing girls, and develops a fascination with a particular girl, who she says she has “fallen in love with, half in earnest, half in jest” (187). She also explains her understanding of the devadasi dedication process in detail.

Questions to Consider

  • Travel writing and other forms of nonfiction are commonly understood to contain unbiased observations. Does Leonowens simply observe India, or attempt to interpret it? Is anyone just an observer? 

  • Can we consider Leonowens a reliable narrator? What limitations might she have as a narrator, if any? Is she cognizant of these limitations? How might her subject position (race, gender, class, birthplace, profession, etc.) colour her narrations? Is she cognizant of her subject position? Is she critical of it?

  • Consider the following sentence: “These poor devotees [devadasis] often accept their fate with that stolid indifference peculiar to the Orientals.” Is this sentence sympathetic or demeaning? Is it descriptive or prescriptive? Can it be both?

  • Male British travel writers often presented harems as a location of pure exotic pleasure and indulgence (DelPlato); Leonowens, by contrast, refers to the behind-the-scenes life of dancing girls as a “sad and dreary picture” (193).  Is one depiction more true than the other? Can they both be true? Are they complete? Who determines the depictions’ trueness and completeness? What impacts might have these perceptions had on how Leonowens’s British readers viewed and treated Indians and dancing girls?
Works Cited
DelPlato, Joan. Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the harem, 1800-1875. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.
Morgan, Susan.  Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess. U of California P, 2008.

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