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The Virago Book of Women Travellers: Anna Leonowens

‘A volume in which rich and unexpected seams of precious materials await discovery’ Guardian

Three hundred years of wanderlust are captured in this collection as women travel for peril or pleasure, whether to gaze into Persian gardens or imbibe the French countryside, to challenge the fierce Sahara or climb an impossible mountain.


Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way.








In 1945 Margaret London won immediate acclaim when her book, Anna and the King of Siam, based on Anna Leonowens’s memoirs, became an overnight best-seller. The musical, starring Gertrude Lawrence, and film, starring Deborah Kerr as Anna and Yul Brynner reprising his stage role Rama IV of Siam, followed. But few know the book that began it all. As the following excerpt demonstrates, Leonowens was a marvelous storyteller, conveying emotional truths of the royal children, wives, and slaves of the King’s harem with a rare compassion. Unlike many other writers of her time, Leonowens was personally involved in the lives of the people around her. In poor health, Leonowens left the king and his court in 1867 and, after publishing two accounts of her life there, failed to encourage theatrical interest in her story, despite her confidence in its dramatic appeal. She spent her final years in Montreal but continued to correspond regularly with many of her former students.







As, month after month, I continued to teach in the palace – especially as the language of my pupils, its idioms and characteristic forms of expression, began to be familiar to me – all the dim life of the place ‘came out’ to my ken, like a faint picture, which at first displays to the eye only a formless confusion, a chaos of colours, but by force of much looking and tracing and joining and separating, first objects and then groups are discovered in their proper identity and relation, until the whole stands out, clear, true, and informing in its coherent significance of light and shade. Thus, by slow processes, as one whose sight has been imperceptibly restored, I awoke to a clearer and truer sense of the life within ‘the city of the beautiful and invincible angel.’

Sitting at one end of the table in my school-room, with Boy at the other, and all those far-off faces between, I felt as though we were twenty thousand miles away from the world that lay but a twenty minutes’ walk from the door; the distance was but a speck in space, but the separation was tremendous. It always seemed to me that here was a sudden, harsh suspension of nature’s fundamental law – the human heart arrested in its functions, ceasing to throb, and yet alive.

The fields beyond are fresh and green, and bright with flowers. The sun of summer, rising exultant, greets them with rejoicing; and evening shadows, falling soft among the dewy petals, linger to kiss them goodnight. There the children of the poor – naked, rude, neglected though they be – are rich in the freedom of the

bounteous earth, rich in the freedom of the fair blue sky, rich in the freedom of the limpid ocean of air above and around them. But within the close and gloomy lanes of this city within a city, through which many lovely women are wont to come and go, many little feet to patter, and many baby citizens to be borne in the arms of their dodging slaves, there is but cloud and chill, and famishing and stinting, and beating of wings against golden bars. In the order of nature, evening melts softly into night, and darkness retreats with dignity and grace before the advancing triumphs of the morning; but here light and darkness are monstrously mixed, and the result is a glaring gloom that is neither of the day nor of the night, nor of life nor of death, nor of earth nor of – yes, hell!

In the long galleries and corridors, bewildering with their ever- lasting twilight of the eye and of the mind, one is forever coming upon shocks of sudden sunshine or shocks of sudden shadow – the smile yet dimpling in a baby’s face, a sister bearing a brother’s scourging; a mother singing to her ‘sacred infant,’ a slave sobbing before a deaf idol. And O, the forlornness of it all! You who have never beheld these things know not the utterness of loneliness. Compared with the predicament of some who were my daily companions, the sea were a home and an iceberg a hearth.

How I have pitied those ill-fated sisters of mine, imprisoned without a crime! If they could but have rejoiced once more in the freedom of the fields and woods, what new births of gladness might have been theirs – they who with a gasp of despair and moral death first entered those royal dungeons, never again to come forth alive! And yet have I known more than one among them who accepted her fate with a repose of manner and a sweetness of smile that told how dead must be the heart under that still exterior. And I wondered at the sight. Only twenty minutes between bondage and freedom – such freedom as may be found in Siam! only twenty minutes between those gloomy, hateful cells and the fair fields and the radiant skies! only twenty minutes between the cramping and

the suffocation and the fear, and the full, deep, glorious inspirations of freedom and safety!

I had never beheld misery till I found it here; I had never looked upon the sickening hideousness of slavery till I encountered its features here; nor, above all, had I comprehended the perfection of the life, light, blessedness and beauty, the all-sufficing fulness of the love of God as it is in Jesus, until I felt the contrast here – pain, deformity, darkness, death, and eternal emptiness, a darkness to which there is neither beginning nor end, a living which is neither of this world nor of the next. The misery which checks the pulse and thrills the heart with pity in one’s common walks about the great cities of Europe is hardly so saddening as the nameless, mocking wretchedness of these women, to whom poverty were a luxury, and houselessness as a draught of pure, free air.

And yet their lot is light indeed compared with that of their children. The single aim of such a hapless mother, howsoever tender and devoted she may by nature be, is to form her child after the one strict pattern her fate has set her – her master’s will; since, otherwise, she dare not contemplate the perils which might overtake her treasure. Pitiful indeed, therefore, is the pitiless inflexibility of purpose with which she wings from her child’s heart all the dangerous endearments of childhood – its merry laughter, its sparkling tears, its trustfulness, its artlessness, its engaging waywardness; and in their place instils silence, submission, self-constraint, suspicion, cunning, carefulness, and an ever-vigilant fear. And the result is a spectacle of unnatural discipline simply appalling. The life of such a child is an egg-shell on an ocean; to its helpless speck of experience all horrors are possible. Its passing moment is its eternity; and that overwhelmed with terrors, real or imaginary, what is left but that poor little floating wreck, a child’s despair?

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 childlike; otherwise, her expression and demeanour were anxious and aged. She had long been out of favour 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.

It was my habit to visit her twice a week at her residence,* for I was indebted to her for much intelligent assistance in my study of the Siamese language. On going to her abode one afternoon, I found her absent; only the young prince was there, sitting sadly by the window.

‘Where is your mother, dear?’ I inquired.

‘With his Majesty upstairs, I think,’ he replied, still looking anxiously in one direction, as though watching for her.

This was an unusual circumstance for my sad, lonely friend, and I returned home without my lesson for that day.

Next morning, passing the house again, I saw the lad sitting in the same attitude at the window, his eyes bent in the same direction, only more wistful and weary than before. On questioning him, I found his mother had not yet returned. At the pavilion I was met by the Lady Tâlâp, who, seizing my hand, said, ‘Hidden- Perfume is in trouble.’

‘What is the matter?’ I inquired.

‘She is in prison,’ she whispered, drawing me closely to her. ‘She is not prudent, you know – like you and me,’ in a tone which expressed both triumph and fear.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Yes, yes! if you bribe the jailers. But don’t give them more than a tical each. They’ll demand two; give them only one.’

In the pavilion, which served as a private chapel for the ladies of the harem, priests were reading prayers and reciting homilies from the sacred book of Buddha called Sâsânâh Thai, ‘The Religion of the Free’; while the ladies sat on velvet cushions with their hands folded, a vase of flowers in front of each, and a pair of odoriferous candles, lighted. Prayers are held daily in this place, and three times a day during the Buddhist Lent. The priests are escorted to the pavilion by Amazons, and two warriors, armed with swords and clubs, remain on guard till the service is ended. The latter, who are eunuchs, also attend the priests when they enter the palace, in the afternoon, to sprinkle the inmates with consecrated water. Leaving the priests reciting and chanting, and the rapt worshippers bowing, I passed a young mother with a sleeping babe, some slave-girls playing at sabâh* on the stone pavement, and two princesses borne in the arms of their slaves, though almost women

grown, on my way to the palace prison.

If it ever should be the reader’s fortune, good or ill, to visit a Siamese dungeon, whether allotted to prince or peasant, his attention will be first attracted to the rude designs on the rough stone walls (otherwise decorated only with moss and fungi and loath- some reptiles) of some nightmared painter, who has exhausted his dyspeptic fancy in portraying hideous personifications of Hunger, Terror, Old Age, Despair, Disease, and Death, tormented by furies and avengers, with hair of snakes and whips of scorpions – all beyond expression devilish. Floor it has none, nor ceiling, for,

with the Meinam so near, neither boards nor plaster can keep out the ooze. Underfoot, a few planks, loosely laid, are already as soft as the mud they are meant to cover; the damp has rotted them through and through. Overhead, the roof is black, but not with smoke; for here, where the close steam of the soggy earth and the reeking walls is almost intolerable, no fire is needed in the coldest season. The cell is lighted by one small window, so heavily grated on the outer side as effectually to bar the ingress of fresh air. A pair of wooden trestles, supporting rough boards, form a makeshift for a bedstead, and a mat (which may be clean or dirty, the ticals of the prisoner must settle that) is all the bed.

In such a cell, on such a couch, lay the concubine of a supreme king and the mother of a royal prince of Siam, her feet covered with a silk mantle, her head supported by a pillow of glazed leather, her face turned to the clammy wall.

There was no door to grate upon her quivering nerves; a trap-door in the street overhead had opened to the magic of silver, and I had descended a flight of broken steps of stone. At her head, a little higher than the pillow, were a vase of flowers, half faded, a pair of candles burning in gold candlesticks, and a small image of the Buddha. She had brought her god with her. Well, she needed his presence.

I could hardly keep my feet, for the footing was slippery and my brain swam. Touching the silent, motionless form, in a voice scarcely audible I pronounced her name. She turned with difficulty, and a slight sound of clanking explained the covering on her feet. She was chained to one of the trestles.

Sitting up, she made room for me beside her. No tears were in her eyes; only the habitual sadness of her face was deepened. Here, truly, was a perfect work of misery, meekness, and patience.

Astonished at seeing me, she imagined me capable of yet greater things, and folding her hands in an attitude of supplication, implored me to help her. The offence for which she was imprisoned was briefly this:

She had been led to petition, through her son,* that an appointment held by her late uncle, Phya Khien, might be bestowed on her elder brother, not knowing that another noble had already been preferred to the post by his Majesty.

Had she been guilty of the gravest crime, her punishment could not have been more severe. It was plain that a stupid grudge was at the bottom of this cruel business. The king, on reading the petition, presented by the trembling lad on his knees, became furious, and, dashing it back into the child’s face, accused the mother of plotting to undermine his power, saying he knew her to be at heart a rebel, who hated him and his dynasty with all the rancour of her Peguan ancestors, the natural enemies of Siam. Thus lashing himself into a rage of hypocritical patriotism, and seeking to justify himself by condemning her, he sent one of his judges to bring her to him. But before the myrmidon could go and come, concluding to dispense with forms, he anticipated the result of that mandate with another – to chain and imprison her. No sooner was she dragged to this deadly cell, than a third order was issued to flog her till she confessed her treacherous plot; but the stripes were administered so tenderly,† that the only confession they extorted was a meek protestation that she was ‘his meanest slave, and ready to give her life for his pleasure.’

‘Beat her on the mouth with a slipper for lying!’ roared the royal tiger; and they did, in the letter, if not in the spirit, of the brutal sentence. She bore it meekly, hanging down her head. ‘I am degraded forever!’ she said to me.

When once the king was enraged, there was nothing to be done but to wait in patience until the storm should exhaust itself by its own fury. But it was horrible to witness such an abuse of power at the hands of one who was the only source of justice in the land. It

was a crime against all humanity, the outrage of the strong upon the helpless. His madness sometimes lasted a week; but weeks have their endings. Besides, he really had a conscience, tough and shrunken as it was; and she had, what was more to the purpose, a whole tribe of powerful connections.

As for myself, there was but one thing I could do; and that was to intercede privately with the Kralahome. The same evening, immediately on returning from my visit to the dungeon, I called on him; but when I explained the object of my visit he rebuked me sharply for interfering between his Majesty and his wives.

‘She is my pupil,’ I replied. ‘But I have not interfered; I have only come to you for justice. She did not know of the appointment until she had sent in her petition; and to punish one woman for that which is permitted and encouraged in another is gross injustice.’ Thereupon he sent for his secretary, and having satisfied himself that the appointment had not been published, was good enough to promise that he would explain to his Majesty that ‘there had been delay in making known to the Court the royal pleasure in this matter’; but he spoke with indifference, as if thinking of something else.

I felt chilled and hurt as I left the premier’s palace, and more anxious than ever when I thought of the weary eyes of the lonely lad watching for his mother’s return; for no one dared tell him the truth. But, to do the premier justice, he was more troubled than he would permit me to discover at the mistake the poor woman had made; for there was good stuff in the moral fabric of the man – stern rectitude, and a judgment unlike the king’s, not warped by passion. That very night* he repaired to the Grand Palace, and explained the delay to the king, without appearing to be aware of the concubine’s punishment.

On Monday morning, when I came to school in the pavilion, I found, to my great joy, that Hidden-Perfume had been liberated, and was at home again with her child. The poor creature embraced me ardently, glorifying me with grateful epithets from the extravagant vocabulary of her people; and, taking an emerald ring from her finger, she put it upon mine, saying, ‘By this you will remember your thankful friend.’ On the following day she also sent me a small purse of gold thread netted, in which were a few Siamese coins, and a scrap of paper inscribed with cabalistic characters – an infallible charm to

preserve the wearer from poverty and distress.

Among my pupils was a little girl about eight or nine years old, of delicate frame, and with the low voice and subdued manner of one who had already had experience of sorrow. She was not among those presented to me at the opening of the school. Wanne Ratana Kania was her name (‘Sweet Promise of my Hopes’), and very engaging and persuasive was she in her patient, timid loveliness. Her mother, the Lady Khoon Chom Kioa, who had once found favour with the king, had, at the time of my coming to the palace, fallen into disgrace by reason of her gambling, in which she had squandered all the patrimony of the little princess. This fact, instead of inspiring the royal father with pity for his child, seemed to attract to her all that was most cruel in his insane temper. The offence of the mother had made the daughter offensive in his sight; and it was not until long after the term of imprisonment of the degraded favourite had expired that Wanne ventured to appear at a royal levée. The moment the king caught sight of the little form, so piteously prostrated there, he drove her rudely from his presence, taunting her with the delinquencies of her mother with a coarseness that would have been cruel enough if she had been responsible for them and a gainer by them, but against one of her tender years, innocent toward both, and injured by both, it was inconceivably atrocious.

On her first appearance at school she was so timid and wistful

that I felt constrained to notice and encourage her more than those whom I had already with me. But I found this no easy part to play; for very soon one of the court ladies in the confidence of the king took me quietly aside and warned me to be less demonstrative in favour of the little princess, saying, ‘Surely you would not bring trouble upon that wounded lamb.’

It was a sore trial to me to witness the oppression of one so unoffending and so helpless. Yet our Wanne was neither thin nor pale. There was a freshness in her childish beauty, and a bloom in the transparent olive of her cheek, that were at times bewitching. She loved her father, and in her visions of baby faith beheld him almost as a god. It was true joy to her to fold her hands and bow before the chamber where he slept. With that steadfast hopefulness of childhood which can be deceived without being discouraged, she would say, ‘How glad he will be when I can read!’ and yet she had known nothing but despair.

Her memory was extraordinary; she delighted in all that was remarkable, and with careful wisdom gathered up facts and precepts and saved them for future use. She seemed to have built around her an invisible temple of her own design, and to have illuminated it with the rushlight of her childish love. Among the books she read to me, rendering it from English into Siamese, was one called Spring-time. On translating the line, ‘Whom He loveth he chasteneth,’ she looked up in my face, and asked anxiously: ‘Does thy God do that? Ah! lady, are all the gods angry and cruel? Has he no pity, even for those who love him? He must be like my father; he loves us, so he has to be rye (cruel), that we may fear evil and avoid it.’

Meanwhile little Wanne learned to spell, read, and translate almost intuitively; for there were novelty and hope to help the Buddhist child, and love to help the English woman. The sad look left her face, her life had found an interest; and very often, on fête days, she was my only pupil; when suddenly an ominous cloud obscured the sky of her transient gladness.

Wanne was poor; and her gifts to me were of the riches of poverty – fruits and flowers. But she owned some female slaves; and one among them, a woman of twenty-five perhaps (who had already made a place for herself in my regard), seemed devotedly attached to her youthful mistress, and not only attended her to the school day after day, but shared her scholarly enthusiasm, even studied with her, sitting at her feet by the table. Steadily the slave kept pace with the princess. All that Wanne learned at school in the day was lovingly taught to Mai Noie in the nursery at night; and it was not long before I found, to my astonishment, that the slave read and translated as correctly as her mistress.

Very delightful were the demonstrations of attachment inter- changed between these two. Mai Noie bore the child in her arms to and from the school, fed her, humoured her every whim, fanned her naps, bathed and perfumed her every night, and then rocked her to sleep on her careful bosom, as tenderly as she would have done for her own baby. And then it was charming to watch the child’s face kindle with love and comfort as the sound of her friend’s step approached.

Suddenly a change; the little princess came to school as usual, but a strange woman attended her, and I saw no more of Mai Noie there. The child grew so listless and wretched that I was forced to ask the cause of her darling’s absence; she burst into a passion of tears, but replied not a word. Then I inquired of the stranger, and she answered in two syllables – My ru (‘I know not’).

Shortly afterward, as I entered the school-room one day, I perceived that something unusual was happening. I turned toward the princes’ door, and stood still, fairly holding my breath. There was the king, furious, striding up and down. All the female judges of the palace were present, and a crowd of mothers and royal children. On all the steps around, innumerable slave-women, old and young, crouched and hid their faces.

But the object most conspicuous was little Wanne’s mother

manacled, and prostrate on the polished marble pavement. There, too, was my poor little princess, her hands clasped helplessly, her eyes tearless but downcast, palpitating, trembling, shivering. Sorrow and horror had transformed the child.

As well as I could understand, where no one dared explain, the wretched woman had been gambling again, and had even staked and lost her daughter’s slaves. At last I understood Wanne’s silence when I asked her where Mai Noie was. By some means – spies probably – the whole matter had come to the king’s ears, and his rage was wild, not because he loved the child, but that he hated the mother.

Promptly the order was given to lash the woman; and two Amazons advanced to execute it. The first stripe was delivered with savage skill; but before the thing could descend again, the child sprang forward and flung herself across the bare and quivering back of her mother.

Ti cham, Tha Moom!* Poot-thoo ti cham, Tha Mom! (‘Strike me, my

father! Pray, strike me, O my father!’)

The pause of fear that followed was only broken by my boy, who, with a convulsive cry, buried his face desperately in the folds of my skirt.

There indeed was a case for prayer, any prayer! – the prostrate

woman, the hesitating lash, the tearless anguish of the Siamese child, the heart-rending cry of the English child, all those mothers with grovelling brows, but hearts uplifted among the stars, on the wings of the Angel of Prayer. Who could behold so many women crouching, shuddering, stupefied, dismayed, in silence and dark- ness, animated, enlightened only by the deep whispering heart of maternity, and not be moved with mournful yearning?

The child’s prayer was vain. As demons tremble in the presence of a god, so the king comprehended that he had now to deal with a power of weakness, pity, beauty, courage, and eloquence. ‘Strike me, O my father!’ His quick, clear sagacity measured instantly all the danger in that challenge; and though his voice was thick and agitated (for, monster as he was at that moment, he could not but shrink from striking at every mother’s heart at his feet), he nervously gave the word to remove the child, and bind her. The united strength of several women was not more than enough to loose the clasp of those loving arms from the neck of an unworthy mother. The tender hands and feet were bound, and the tender heart was broken. The lash descended then, unforbidden by any cry.



  • *Each of the ladies of the harem has her own exclusive domicile, within the inner walls of the
  • *Marbles, played with the knee instead of the
    • *Privilege granted to all the concubines

    † In these cases the executioners are women, who generally spare each other if they dare.

  • *All consultations on matters of state and of court discipline are held in the royal palace at night
  • *Tha Mom or Moom, used by children in addressing a royal