From 1870, Anna reminds us that kings and commoners have the same neuroses

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 27, 2017

In the archives of ‘The Atlantic’ there is a delightful fragment from a piece that English governess Anna Leonowens wrote for the magazine back in 1870. She instructed the children of the King of Siam and often came up against the frustrations of the monarch at the limitations of his power.

Leonowens’ reflections eventually went on to become the novel ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, which became the film ‘Anna and the King’ and then the musical, ‘The King and I’.

Her comments on the King’s various conversational gambits provide an interesting insight into how most of us generally want anything we don’t have. The rich and the powerful want more…more wealth, more authority. The royal wants to be absolute. The Hollywood celebrity wants to be royal. The royal wants to be a Hollywood celebrity.

Accordingly, the King of Siam complained as follows:

“‘I an absolute monarch! For I have no power over French. Siam is like a mouse before an elephant! Am I an absolute monarch? What shall you consider me?’”

This stumped the governess.

“Now as I considered him a particularly absolute and despotic king, that was a trying question; so I discreetly held my peace, fearing less to be classed with those obnoxious savans who compile geographies than to provoke him afresh.”

This was in the context of the King’s secret longing for English protection and his almost superstitious fear of the French. His powerlessness, he said, showed up geographers’ stupidity in setting down the form of government in Siam as an ‘absolute monarchy’.