Entertainment

There’s more to the real Anna, says descendant of woman who inspired The King and I

What most theatregoers saw Sunday night when they watched an English governess and the King of Siam dance across the stage is a tale of romance and culture clash — but in the audience, Newmarket’s Peter Saegert was one of a few who know the real story of Anna Leonowens.

Peter Saegert is a descendant of Leonowens, whose real-life experiences inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and several films after she travelled to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to work as a teacher for King Mongkut’s 39 wives and 82 children.

Peter Saegert, his daughter Kim Darlington and granddaughter Olivia Darlington meet Elena Shaddow backstage. Saegert is a descendant of the real Anna Leonowens.
Peter Saegert, his daughter Kim Darlington and granddaughter Olivia Darlington meet Elena Shaddow backstage. Saegert is a descendant of the real Anna Leonowens.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)
Nine descendants of Anna Leonowens attended a performance of The King and I on Sunday.
Nine descendants of Anna Leonowens attended a performance of The King and I on Sunday.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

Saegert attended a performance of The King and I, along with nine other descendants of Leonowens, including a great-great-great-great-granddaughter, at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Sunday.

Leonowens’ memoirs inspired a novel, which then inspired the films and musical that popularized the story. A dive into the actual facts of her life, however, reveals many things outside of this well-known narrative.

“While the musical is a treat in terms of the musicality and the songs, it really is a small portion of Anna,” Saegert said.

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Leonowens, Saegert said, was born in Bombay, India, not Wales as she had said during her life, and is thought to have had Indian heritage on one side of her family.

“She was Eurasian, and after becoming a widow with two children, she faked it that she was a Brit, from England,” Saegert said. Her husband had died some years before she accepted the job in Thailand.

“The fact that she was not a Brit but a Eurasian is not something that in today’s world would be thought of as a limitation. In Victorian times it most certainly (was).”

One thing that doesn’t change between the musical and Leonowens’ life is her dedication to education. She knew several languages, learning Sanskrit when she was a teenager, Saegert said, and taught a lecture on Sanskrit at McGill not long before she died. She taught at and helped found several schools, including one in Nova Scotia after she settled in Canada, where her daughter Avis had moved earlier in the 1870s. She also travelled extensively, taking her grandchildren to Germany, and visiting Russia independently to write travel articles.

In the musical, Leonowens is able to get the king to make some reforms to laws she disagreed with, but it’s not clear how much political influence she held in reality.

Saegert said he hopes his grandchildren feel proud of having a relative of historical note, and when reflecting on Leonowens’ love of learning and adaptability to situations, he said “what I would encourage my grandchildren, particularly my granddaughters, to do, is think likewise.

“I think that Anna should be celebrated not just for … that which she is perhaps most famous for, but for the other things that she did in her life,” he said. “I really feel that the rest of her life is something that is, in today’s world, more important, perhaps, than whatever (her) relationship was with the king of Siam.”

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In some ways, the musical reflects a version of Leonowens: the respected British governess who stood toe to toe with a king. But there’s more to a story, and to a person, than a dance.

Alexandra Jones is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @AlexandraMaeJ