A lady of distinction

John F. Hartmann

Mom Luang Boonlua Debyasuvarn. Illustration : Damien Chavanat



(translated from the Thai by Abhassara Charubha and Charungkiat Phutiratana)

Silpakorn University: 2017


Mom Luang Boonlua Debyasuvarn, known by her pen name, Boonlua, was four years old when she was sent to a convent school in Bangkok after the death of her mother, a classical dancer, who had taught her only child, Boonlua, to read when she was three. Later, her elder half-brother shipped her off to a convent high school in Penang, Malaysia, where she was exposed to Western literature, in French and English, and disciplined by nuns in the craft of good writing. After returning to Bangkok, she earned a bachelor of arts in Thai language and literature from Chulalongkorn University in 1936, in the very first class that included women. For a brief period, she was an administrator in the Ministry of Education, which left her feeling frustrated because, as a woman, she was ignored, which she often countered by raising her voice at meetings. She turned instead to a more rewarding career as a teacher of literature and took time out to earn an MA in education from the University of Minnesota in 1950. For years, she lived in the shadow of her elder half-sister, who, under the pen name Dokmai Sot, wrote popular light “novels of manners” about the aristocratic class. It was only after her half-sister’s death that Boonlua found the courage to write novels, six in all. She wrote her classic, Thutiyawiset, as a weekly series in 1966-67 for a popular women’s magazine, Satri Sarn.

Boonlua’s father, Chao Phraya Thewet, was a great-grandson of Rama II, “the poet king”, who rewrote some parts of his father’s version of the Ramakien for khon, or masked dance drama. Chao Phraya Thewet was also an adviser to King Chulalongkorn and managed all theatrical performance in the Royal Palace. Boonlua was Phraya Thewet’s thirty-second child, and his favourite. Classical Thai literature and dance drama were part of her DNA, as was a probing intellect. Her proximity to the palace gave her a window into elite society and political intrigues.

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