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“The King of Siam Speaks:” Rehabilitating a King’s Image

(The following is a post by Tien Doan, Special Assistant to the Chief, Asian Division.)

Illustrated cover of the manuscript “The King of Siam Speaks,” [Bangkok, 1948] Southeast Asia Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

Lying inside the Asian Division rare book vault is a bound manuscript titled “The King of Siam Speaks,” written by two brothers, Seni and Kukrit Pramoj. The king in the title refers to King Mongkut (1804-1868), the 4th monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri, Siam being the official name of Thailand prior to 1939. Seni Pramoj (1905-1997) was the Free Thai Ambassador to the United States and Thailand’s first postwar prime minister. In 1948, at the time the manuscript was written, Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995) was a journalist in Bangkok. Kukrit subsequently became a well-known novelist in Thailand and served as prime minister from 1975 to 1976.

“The King of Siam Speaks” intends to rehabilitate King Mongkut’s image in light of Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was followed by John Cromwell’s 1946 film of the same name. Margaret Landon’s interest in Anna Leonowens (1831-1915), the novel’s title character, was initially piqued by two books she received in Siam with her husband, Dr. Kenneth Landon, who was a missionary. The two books, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court,”  and “Romance of the Harem (1873),” were written by Leonowens in 1870 and 1872, respectively. Leonowens had served as a private tutor for the household of King Mongkut between 1862 and 1868, and she used her experiences there as the basis for these two works, which she presented as memoirs. In a 1982 interview, Dr. Kenneth Landon stated that his wife, who was fluent in Thai, supplemented the content of these memoirs with source materials supplied by Leonowens’ granddaughter, Avis Fyshek, and with materials in English and Thai held in the Library of Congress, including King Mongkut’s correspondences.

King Mongkut’s 1857 letter to Sir John Browning, Superintendent of British Trade in China and Governor of Hong Kong. King Mongkut often signed his letters with the signature “Mongkut, Rex Siamensium.” “Mongkut, King of Siam, papers, 1853-1868.” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Landon’s novel was well-received in the United States, with reviewer Isabelle Mallet calling it “an inviting escape into an unfamiliar, exotic past” in the July 9, 1944 issue of the New York Times. The 1946 movie version of “Anna and the King” became the 24th top-grossing movie of the year. Subsequent adaptations of the book were even more successful, with the most famous being Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical version, “The King and I.” Its theatrical production and the motion picture both won multiple awards and launched the career of its star, Yul Brynner.

In Thailand, however, these Western works were seen as disrespectful to a revered monarch.  In Leonowens’ memoirs, King Mongkut was referred to as a despot who “has [a] peculiar vanity to pass for an accomplished English scholar.” In Landon’s book, the King was called “the Oriental despot” and his wives “relentless minions.” Without mentioning either of these works, the Pramoj brothers wrote “The King of Siam Speaks” to point out the various fallacies in Western accounts. Transcriptions and translations of King Mongkut’s public and private correspondence show that long before Leonowens’ arrival in Siam in 1862, the king had already initiated the country’s westernization. Fluent in Latin and English, he wrote his own letters instead of employing a secretary. Included in the manuscript were letters from the king offering to hire Leonowens as an English teacher, not as a governess as she had claimed, at a lower salary than what Leonowens wanted. The manuscript ends with a detailed description of the King’s last day, a different account than that portrayed by Leonowens, who had left Siam before the King’s passing in 1868.

1965 lobby card for “The King and I” shows starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress.

At its completion in 1948, Ambassador Seni Pramoj sent the typed and hand-corrected manuscript to American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat, who later donated the manuscript to the Library of Congress. In 1961, Moffat, using information from “The King of Siam Speaks,” published the biography “Mongkut, King of Siam.” The full manuscript itself was published in 1987 by the Bangkok-based Siam Society.

King Mongkut in 1865 as captured by John Thompson (1837-1921). John Thompson negative #602, Wellcome Collection, London, UK.

Further study of King Mongkut and his complex life story has emerged with such publications as “Louis and the King of Siam,” (1976), “Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess,” (2008), and “Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam” (2014). Using original research, these books point out the various inconsistencies and untruths within the narratives of Anna Leonowens, including discoveries of Leonowens’ false statements about her own background.

“The King of Siam Speaks” manuscript is currently part of the Asian Division’s Southeast Asian rare book collection. It is accessible to researchers in the Asian Reading Room by prior appointment made through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.

One Comment

  1. Taru Spiegel
    January 3, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Thank you for this illuminating blogpost. While living in Thailand I really did wonder about the relentlessly Western view of Thai culture in the Leonowens narrative, and definitely in the film and theatre versions.

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