Wrestling With Amazing Anna
May 19, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

I am, literally, wrestling with Anna Leonowens.

Back in the 19th century, Anna (of The King and I fame) was one of the most amazing women of her time. A widowed mother of two young children – without any visible means of support – who completly re-created herself.

 She became a woman of adventure, an author, a vocal supporter of women’s rights and abolition. She created an amazingly successful and dramatic life for herself. She was hardworking and ambitious. And a great self-promoter. Anna lived for more than two decades in Halifax, and she left her mark on the city, the province – and, ultimately, the country.

“In 1862 she was recommended to King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) as a potential governess to the royal family, then composed of 67 offspring by the king’s numerous wives. Settling in Bangkok, Leonowens began a remarkable five-year career as “Mem Cha” (“M’am Dear”), which proved to be the pivotal event in a long and curious life.

In 1868, she left that posting and opened a school for training kindergarten teachers in (New York City.

Adept at self-promotion, Leonowens soon became known to the publisher of the prestigious Boston-based Atlantic Monthly.
Under his sponsorship, a series of articles portraying her Siamese experiences appeared in that magazine during 1870, followed immediately by his publication of The English Governess at the Siamese Court.

“”Since castigated as little more than plagiarism and fraudulent misrepresentation, the book was an immediate success…” – (Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online)””

Think of it this way: Readers back then, were hungry for stories about the mysterious Far East. And Anna, who did have a legitimately amazing adventure there, knew how to take a great story and make it sellable .

By the time Anna landed in Halifax in 1876, she was quite famous – as a woman of adventure, an author, a rights activist.

Before she left – 20 years later – to move to Montreal (where she died, at 84 and is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery), she left her mark on the city: sparking the establishment of the Victorian School of Art and Design, now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) University. So: that’s who I’m wrestling in my studio with – a formidable woman!

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