The Romance of the Harem

Anna Harriette Leonowens, Author University of Virginia Press $35 (0p) ISBN 978-0-8139-1327-8
Leonowens is best known as the heroine of the musical The King and I . Less well known is that her duties at the court of the Thai king included the education of the women in the king's harem in English and Western culture. This book, originally published in 1872 and long out of print, deals with her experiences in, and perceptions of, that oddly Eastern institution, inhabited by 9000 p. xviii women and children. Roundly condemned as fiction when first published, the work is now recovered by editor Morgan ( Sisters in Time ) as a kind of fictionalized history. Written in florid prose, the stories are fabulous--grisly tales of witchcraft, bastinado and other tortures (at one point the king builds a scaffold outside Leonowens's window, ostensibly to hang a woman and her illicit lover but in fact to terrorize Leonowens, who is in conflict with him over harem policy). Such tales are out of keeping with a king who was, by the standards of the day, an enlightened Western-style monarch. Morgan tries hard to equate Leonowens's style to contemporaries like Eliot and Dickens. In the end, however, the book is perhaps best viewed as a relic of its time rather than anything of enduring value. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 07/29/1991
Release date: 08/01/1991
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