In January 1862 the Siamese Consul in Singapore requested an interview with the proprietress of a small school for the children of British officers. He had been commissioned by His Majesty Somdetch P’hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the Supreme King of Siam, to find an English governess who would undertake the Western education of His Majesty’s children. Would the honourable lady be prepared to entertain the project?
The honourable lady’s name was Anna Leonowens. And her instinctive reaction was to say no. She knew nothing about Siam, its people or its king; she had no friends or acquaintances there, and she could not speak a word of the language. But once the Consul had taken his leave she found herself reflecting on the suggestion and on her current circumstances. She was thirty-one, a widow, the mother of two small children and, thanks to the British officers’ perpetual tardiness in paying their children’s fees, her school was not thriving. So she contacted the Siamese Consul and informed him that she was, after all, willing to ‘entertain the project’.
Anna Leonowens met her new employer in Bangkok a few months later. King Mongkut was fifty-seven and was regarded – like all the Thai monarchs – not merely as royal but as divine. He was also frail, abstemious, partially paralysed as a result of a stroke, and had spent twenty-seven