Introducing Anna
February 28, 2012

anna-collectionscanada  To garner enthusiasm and revenue for the fledgling art school in Halifax, Anna Leonowens "used her polished lecturing skills, speaking to groups in Halifax and Prince Edward Island. As part of her publicity campaign, she had reprinted and circulated articles from Century Magazine on "The Art Movement in America." Halifax should become part of this art movement too, she urged." -- Donald Soucy and Harold Pearse, The First Hundred Years: A History of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

She was raised in poverty in India, the daughter of a lowly British soldier and his 14-year-old mixed race bride. She seemed destined for a short brutal life like her mother and grandmother before her. 

But through the sheer force of her considerable will and intellect, Anna Harriet Edwards transformed herself into Anna Leonowens, a well-born English lady—the “I” of The King and I.

The King and I tells the story of an English gentlewoman—that’s our Anna—who comes to work for the King Mongkut of Siam as governess to his 67 children. A romantic, sweeping tale, the popular myth of Anna stems from Anna’s memoir The English Governess at the Siamese Court and its sequel The Romance of the Harem. Those books were discovered more than 30 years after Anna’s death in 1915 by writer Margaret Landon, who transformed Anna Leonowens into a major icon of 20th century American culture with her runaway bestseller Anna and the King of Siam. That in turn, inspired the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway musical and the lavish 1956 film which swept the Academy Awards later that year, claiming five awards out of nine nominations.

A seemingly irresistible story, The King and I pits East against West, civilization versus barbarism, man versus woman. The story was recently revived again for the lavish Jodi Foster-Chow Yun Fat version, along with an animated feature and even a short-lived TV series.

What would Anna have thought? She may well have been delighted that the identity she shaped for herself as she stepped off a boat in Singapore—a young, recently widowed mother of two originally from Wales—held fast. Without the invented pedigree, she would have never been considered for the job as governess in Siam. And, with her husband dead in Malaysia and two young children to support, she desperately needed the work at a time when there were few options for women.

“She had to make her own way,” says historian Lois Yorke, who is writing a biography of Anna Leonowens. “She had no family that she wanted to go back to, so she reinvented her past and moved forward.”

Siam (1862-1868) was just one chapter in her incredible life story; she also became a respected author and public educator in New York (in the 1870s); travelling journalist in Russia (1881); and a leading social activist in Halifax (1878-1897). If there’s one thing that the many iterations of The King and I capture well, it’s her spunk, determination and intelligence. As Ms. Yorke says in reference to Anna’s days in Siam and her relationship with the King: “I suspect there was a meeting of the minds at an intellectual level.”

There was also a meeting of minds in Halifax. Upon daughter Avis’s marriage to Thomas Fyshe, general manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Anna moved to Halifax to stay with her daughter (who she was separated from while in Siam) and to help raise the couple’s children.

“It was an intellectual ménage a trois,” says Ms. Yorke, director of public services with the Nova Scotia Archives. “Thomas Fyshe and mama got along like this,” she adds, holding up crossed fingers.

After her world travels, Anna had a hard time adjusting to Halifax, the semi-rural Victorian backwater that was to serve as home base for 19 years. Feeling confined by her surroundings and wanting to stir things up, she wrote to a friend in 1882: “I felt, when in the midst of a grand party of all the grandees here, like giving a wild war whoop, and running amuck like the wild Malays, not because I wanted to kill anyone so much, as because I was burning to do something desperate, to stir up the cold vapid formalism and the empty minutiae of a still more empty life.”

To counteract such feelings, Anna got busy, applying her considerable energy to bettering her new home and taking charge of her grandchildren’s education. She started the Pioneer Book Club and the Shakespeare Club and she worked diligently on causes including the rights of women, prison reform and literacy. Along with other progressive thinkers, she helped found the Victoria School of Art and Design in 1887. All the while, she was travelling, lecturing and writing.

“She was cosmopolitan, a published author and very exotic looking,” says Ms. Yorke. “She didn’t fit in with the society of matrons here in Halifax … so she blazed her own path, but everything she did related to self improvement and learning.”

When The King and I was released in 1956, people in Halifax could still recall the grand dame who sat stiffly in the Fyshe family pew in Fort Massey Church. It was an image difficult to reconcile with this new romantic portrayal—the genteel English lady waltzing with Yul Brynner.

“She was memorable alright,” says Ms. Yorke, who will talk about Anna Leonowen’s life in a lecture on Wednesday, March 7, 12 noon, at the Anna Leonowens Gallery. “She was a very strong woman, very unusual for her time.”

The March of Anna

March around NSCAD has been renamed the “March of Anna” as the university recognizes Anna Leonowens and her contribution as one of the founders of the Victoria School of Art and Design 125 years ago.

Events kick off on Friday, March 2 with a sing-along screening of The King and I in the Bell Auditorium. The fun starts at 5:30 p.m. There will be a prize for the best costume and a special appearance by Anna and the King!

Also in March, an exhibition of artwork inspired by Anna Leonowens will be held, where else but in the Anna Leonowens Gallery. The show runs from March 6 to March 10.

Throughout the month, there will be public lectures by four dynamic artists and educators. Lois Yorke, the foremost expert on Anna Leonowens, will talk about the independent, forthright woman “who has time and again tweaked our imagination and charmed her way into our popular culture.” Not to be missed, her talk is set for Wednesday, March 7, 12 noon, in the Anna Leonowens Gallery.  Other public lectures include those by visiting artists Judy Pfaff (Thursday, March 8, 7 p.m., Bell Auditorium), Jackie Sumell (Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m. , Bell Auditorium) and Liz Magor (Friday, March 30, 7 p.m., Bell Auditorium).