Getting to know you

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Anna and the King of Siam: the Wexford connection

‘I stand in front of the big stone house that is Chantemond at the top of Weafer Street, Enniscorthy, and I imagine Mrs Leonowens in there chatting with her cousins and asking them,  “Did I ever tell you about the time I taught the King of Siam how to dance?”.’ Above, Yul Brynner (as the King of Siam) and Deborah Kerr (as Anna Leonowens) in  The King and I. Photograph:  Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

‘I stand in front of the big stone house that is Chantemond at the top of Weafer Street, Enniscorthy, and I imagine Mrs Leonowens in there chatting with her cousins and asking them, “Did I ever tell you about the time I taught the King of Siam how to dance?”.’ Above, Yul Brynner (as the King of Siam) and Deborah Kerr (as Anna Leonowens) in The King and I. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 01:00

It is a grey house of two storeys above a windowed basement. Stone steps lead up to an impressive front door, which has a large Georgian window on either side of it and above are the three smaller windows of the top floor. This house is called Chantemond which, I’m told, means “A place where everyone is happy” and it was once the dower house on the Moore Estate, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, before the town engulfed it.

I stand before it in the twilight of a chilly evening trying to visualise what went on here behind closed doors some time around the middle of the 19th century. The image that comes to me is of Deborah Kerr in a crinoline gown educating the several children of the King of Siam all in colourful silk outfits. And as I stare I can convince myself that she might float by a window whistling – Whenever I Feel Afraid. Then suddenly a gong might sound and there he is – bare-headed Yul Brynner in a silk suit glittering with gold embroidery asking, “Shall we dance?”.

But why am I thinking of The King and I?

Because, once upon a time, at Chantemond, Enniscorthy there lived a lady called Mrs Anna Harriet Owens. She was born Anna Clifford in north Wales in 1834 and moved with her family to India where her father served as an officer with the British army. There, when she was 17 years old she met and fell in love with Thomas Louis Leon Owens and, despite her parents’ disapproval, married him.

A few years later, Capt Leon Owens died suddenly. Apparently, after a tiger hunt he had been concerned that Anna would worry unnecessarily because he could be in great danger and was far away from their home. He should have waited after the hunt with his companions. They set up camp for the night with a view to riding home at first light. His concern for wife and children made him ride through the night – a feat which exhausted him to death.

Anna was left with two young children to raise and had to look for suitable work. At this stage, she decided to change her name slightly. She combined her husband’s Christian name with his surname to become Mrs Leonowens because she thought it sounded more aristocratic. She did this when she set up a school to educate officers’ children in India, but she was unable to earn enough money to support her family. She found, to her cost, that several officers were unreliable when it came to paying the fees.

So when the King of Siam wrote personally to ask Anna to become governess to his children, she accepted with alacrity, on condition that she could take her son, Louis, with her. Her daughter, Avis, was sent to school in England. The year was 1862 and this amazing lady spent the next five years teaching the King of Siam’s numerous children. In 1867 she returned to Ireland and stayed at Chantemond, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, for some time, but her health began to fail and doctors recommended a warmer clime. She went across the Atlantic to live with friends in America where, in order to earn her keep, she turned to writing.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article she wrote about her life in Siam and suddenly she was in huge demand as an authority on the Far East. She toured all over America, lecturing and telling tales of the Far East. She was accepted by the literary personalities of America at the time, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and, a particular heroine of Anna’s, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Anna’s book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, was published in 1870, and a second one, The Romance of the Harem, was published two years later. She was now earning more than she could ever imagine. Eventually Anna tired of city life and went to live with her daughter in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her son, Louis, returned to Siam where he set up a timber business.

Some 30 years after she left Siam, Anna Harriet Leonowens had the joy of meeting again one of her former pupils when the new King of Siam visited London in 1897. He told her that following her teaching, he had reformed his country’s laws and had abolished slavery.

It was in the early 1930s that Margaret Landon, an American, came across Anna’s books in New York. She edited and combined both books into one volume that was published as Anna and the King of Siam. This in turn became the musical The King and I by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

I stand in front of the big stone house that is Chantemond at the top of Weafer Street, Enniscorthy, and I imagine Mrs Leonowens in there chatting with her cousins and asking them “Did I ever tell you about the time I taught the King of Siam how to dance?”

The cold evening darkens and lights begin to come on behind the blinded windows of Enniscorthy. When I turn away from the big house and make my way back to my car, I find myself humming “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you.”

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