Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Review: Fanny and the Regent of Siam

Book Title: Fanny and the Regent of Siam
Author: R.J. Minney
Date: 1962
Publisher: World
ISBN: none; Amazon tracking number B000NXT302
Length: 382 pages
Illustrations: black-and-white photos and drawings
Quote: “I imagined myself marrried of course. I’ve always seen myself as a wife and mother.”
In this sequel to Anna and the King of Siam, the capable but ruthless Sri Suriwong is the Regent for the young King Chulalongkorn. Anna Leonowens’ son Louis wants to marry the Consul’s daughter, Fanny Knox; she wants to marry Phra Preecha, and Suriwong wants her to marry his grandson Nai Dee. The suspenseful story that follows is a romance, but it doesn’t fade out after a kiss or even a wedding. Fanny, legally British, is “Siamese” on her mother’s side and not content to be an aristocratic waiting-maid to royalty, or even an ornamental wife to a diplomat. Her effort to gain legal protections for people who run afoul of powerful men, like Suriwong, without subverting the authority of her lifelong friend Chulalongkorn, carries the story on through the romantic period  of her life and into her old age.
Although the chaste and simple tone suggests that Fanny and the Regent of Siam is going to be a simple romance—young woman with four suitors, determined to let her life be guided by loyalty to her Christian faith and her Siamese (Thai) people rather than merely by physical attraction—this "75% factual" biographical novel of Fanny Knox takes adult, even macabre, turns. At one point in the story a fortuneteller predicts that she and a friend will have long lives, but not together, with lots of adventures. Fanny Knox did have a long life, with enough sensationalism and melodrama for a bodice-ripping romance... but Minney didn’t write it as a bodice-ripping romance. Palace intrigue, elopements, murders, rapes, and the threat of revolution are narrated in a dry, understated, very nineteenth-century-British tone that will keep the imaginative, empathetic reader turning pages.
Fanny Knox was, like the novel about her, hard to classify. Minney insists that she was “White”; her mother, like many Thai people, looked White, and her father was Scottish—but to European racists she was biracial, not particularly welcome back in a Britain where pale-complexioned Thais and Burmese, and even fair-haired, grey-eyed Afghans, were lumped together in the category “blacks.” (Not to Frances Hodgson Burnett or George Orwell but to many of their contemporaries, “blacks” meant “not people...[but] servants who must salaam to you.”) She was by Victorian standards a Good Girl...until...well, she could be described to Victorian Britain as something else. Sometimes she wore European dresses, and sometimes Thai. She grew up wealthy, but died poor. And even when she became a mother, although she seemed fond of her children, they don’t seem to have taken first priority in her life.
Perhaps if Fanny and the Regent of Siam had been published twenty years later, feminist readers would have been more interested in the way Fanny managed the contradictions and broke out of the stereotyped molds into which she was born unable to fit. In 1962, it seems likely that fans of The King and I who bought this book in search of another picturesque, wholesome family story were merely disappointed. Picturesque Fanny’s story certainly is. Wholesome...well, Fanny was a Christian and wanted to keep her story wholesome, but the story does have Suriwong and his grandson in it.
What’s not to love? Perhaps, now that the Cold War is over and we can take a detached view of the movement towards “democracy” in Asia, some readers might wish Minney had been more specific about the political work to which Fanny devoted her mature years. I suspect Minney blurred over Fanny’s politics as much because publishers wanted to appeal to the romance-reading audience, who weren’t interested in an old woman’s political activism, as because Fanny would certainly have been exposed to ideas from all the countries that called themselves democracies between the 1880s and 1920s, including the emerging Soviet Union.  We’re not told how sympathetic Fanny was to Marxism. Those who like history better than romance might want to know.
However, if somebody (like Jodie Foster) wants to direct a glamorous, picturesque, PG-13 sequel to Anna, the material is definitely present in Fanny and the Regent of Siam. Here I stand to testify that, reading this book for the first time as a jaded middle-aged bookseller, I never knew which way the plot was going to twist, and sat up late to find out.
I wouldn’t hand it to middle school readers. Mature teenagers will probably enjoy it. If you are a parent or teacher, read it first, and think about whether the teenagers you know are ready to absorb the moral lessons Fanny’s life teaches. I actually think most teenagers could benefit from a discussion of whether one episode should be summarized as rape, prostitution, both, neither; for younger kids (who could understand the vocabulary) it might be confusing or upsetting.

R.J. Minney, who wrote other books and directed movies about obscure heroines of Women's History (although he was male), died in 1979. It's possible to buy this book from me but, since the copy about which I wrote this review has been sold and Minney no longer needs the money, you might as well buy it on Amazon. I'd have to charge $5 plus $5 shipping, and I'd actually prefer that online readers paid that price for something by a living writer.