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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Research Quandaries, Biographer Battles and Anna Leonowens--which one is right?

Love that hair!
So, I'm reading two biographies of Anna Leonowens. Recent ones. And in many places, they flat-out contradict one another.

One is called Bombay Anna, The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess p. 2008 by Susan Morgan. (Distinguished professor of English at University of Miami.) Morgan's writing is fun (so far) In this book, Morgan presents a reasonable view of Anna's life and choices, beginning with upward-rising ancestors, proof of her grandmother's marriage, and a wild, free-range childhood where she her voracious intellect was able to inhale several languages beyond the ones she would have learned at home. She manages to make

The other is: Masked, The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the court of Siam, by Alfred Habegger, a professor emeritus, again of English, at the University of Kansas, and biographer of Henry James Sr. and Emily Dickinson. Habegger really dislikes his heroine, who he explains with great disdain,  falsified things she wrote about her own past (at a time of such bigotry against being a "half-caste," or in Anna's case, one quarter East-Indian, that it was like being a quadroon (one quarter African) while living as white in high society 1850's New Orleans.

He is also given to saying, with high dudgeon, that none of the other white people dealing with King Monghut thought he was highhanded with them, while neglecting to notice that none of the other people he's mentioning are women, and when he mentions Anna's son, Louis, who was with her in Thailand, writing of his fears of King Monghut, Habegger decides not that there might be a reason for fear in an absolute monarchy where opposition is suppressed, but that his mother's "paranoia" must have affected him. 

And he speaks in the simplest psychologicaleese, something that, in general, irritates the heck out of me. Very few things are that simple. Certainly not Anna Leonowens, King Monghut, or the politics of Siam or America or Britain during the years about which he writes. 

But he seems to have done a tremendous amount of detailed detective work and research, as does Susan Morgan. 

So what do I do when they disagree? 

And would anybody know anything about the Bombay Education Society's School during the years of, say, 1840 to 1855? If you do, I'd love to hear from you.

Would you have any idea of whether or how much an Anglo-Indian East India Army brat might encounter Mohommedans, Parsis--(Zoroastrians originally from Persia) Marathis, thugs (a tribe or gang of criminals known as thuggees, believe it or not) Nautch girls, Turban folders, gold-thread weavers, road sweepers, Brahmins and every cast between, cow patty makers, (or did Anna herself make cow patties to line the walls, burn for fuel, etc?) 

Did Anna join her mother with a group of women washing laundry in the river or lake? 

How the heck can I learn about these things? Even if I could afford to travel to India, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand, I couldn't get to 1840 Poona, a now-destroyed Australian outpost, or the brick house outside the palace from that time. 

Though why anybody who had grown up in the heat of India, lived in Australia's dry heat, and Indonesia's humidity, think that a brick house would make sense for living in in Thailand? 

Any ideas? 

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