The Letter

A Colonial Tale Of Vengeance & Deceit

(This appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, January 2000) Review of MURDER ON THE VERANDAH: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya by Eric Lawlor, 260pp, published in 1999 by Harper Collins Publishers, 77-85 Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith, London W6 8JB.  L17.99

In Kuala Lumpur in 1911, an adulterous British woman shot and killed her cheating lover, scandalizing the town and sending reverberations throughout the Empire.

Now her shocking behavior -- famously fictionalized by W. Somerset Maugham in his 1926 short story "The Letter" and portrayed by Bette Davis in the 1940 Hollywood film -- is examined in an entirely new and perceptive light, at once sympathetic to the Eurasian murderess and damning to the rigid Eastern protectorate in which she found herself captive.

Although Eric Lawlor's Murder on the Verandah is ostensibly the true story behind the notorious Ethel Proudlock case, within a few chapters his account morphs into a withering social history of British Malaya. For prurient interest, especially to residents of modern Malaysia, it doesn't disappoint.

However, Proudlock herself remains a cipher in spite of Mr. Lawlor’s admirable (albeit hypothetical) efforts to flesh her out. Unable to procure even one likeness of the woman, the author instead is pressed to supply photos of clubs, activities and locations which have only peripheral bearing on her story.

It is understandable that Ethel Proudlock was actively erased from the lives and memories of those who knew of her.

In race- and class-conscious British Malaya at the turn of the twentieth century, Proudlock appears doomed from the beginning.  Mr. Lawlor surmises she was born illegitimately to a low-ranking Briton and a native woman, then treated coolly by her father's European family, and hastily married in 1907 to the undistinguished and naive young teacher, William Proudlock.  Ethel was most likely pregnant with her only child at the time, born on the honeymoon trip to England.   "So much in her life reeked of deceit," notes Mr. Lawlor.

Even though she was a minor figure about town and dogged by ill-health, Proudlock apparently dreamed of being noticed: she was both a clotheshorse and an aspiring actress.

These qualities cannot have been rewarded in a society which had recently traded in its freewheeling pioneer atmosphere for a distinctly suburban, timid conformity.

"Malaya no longer felt like Malaya," was the nostalgic lament.  "It had been domesticated, and where once tigers had roamed, now there were tennis courts and cricket creases."

Racial purity was also being increasingly emphasized, with nascent movements to exclude Asians from the civil service and to segregate train cars.

In this climate, Proudlock’s mixed bloodline would have resulted in further ostracization.

When Proudlock's audacious actions finally captured the ultimate limelight in her murder trial, "people who saw her on the witness stand remarked on how self-possessed she looked."

She enjoyed playing an upright woman who had killed defending her honor, as she claimed William Steward attempted to rape her.  Only when sentenced to hang for the murder of the tin mine manager did she lose her composure.

A debate raged in both England and Malaya over the virtues of the case and her supporters looked for a way to reverse the decision.  It was mostly a matter of appearance, however, as the British liked to believe they cut exemplary figures in Malaya.

Eventually she was pardoned by the Sultan of Selangor and exiled to England. If the shame weren't enough, her husband's public denunciations of the trial proceedings effectively ruined him too.  He was forced to resign as headmaster at the Victoria Institution and his inquiries were rebuffed ever after by the Colonial Office in London.

Murder on the Verandah succeeds as a masterful negative-space account of the woman and her vengeful crime, supplying us with context,  the pressures and the expectations under which Proudlock and her husband must have labored.

It also paints the portraits of a large cast of characters who lend their thoughts and life experiences to Mr. Lawlor's points: among them newspaper editors, estate managers, civil servants and their wives.

Mr. Lawlor's dark perspective specifically vindicates Maugham's acerbic view of Malayan planters and district officers, even though Maugham’s unwitting subjects uniformly insisted that they had been defamed.

The revealing retrospective continues through a host of ills suffered by the British in Malaya, as well as the hardships of Asians at the hands of their insensitive British masters.  Exploring the cruel indentured servitude of Tamils on rubber plantations and the perception of Chinese rickshaw pullers in town, Mr. Lawlor exposes just how alienated the British managed to make themselves.

So unnerved at surrendering control even for a short ride across town, they believed a rickshaw puller "used the opportunity not just to avenge every wrong he had suffered at their hands, but to avenge as well every wrong done to every member of his race."

Paranoia, perhaps.

Yet, as Ethel Proudlock knew to her core, revenge is the province of the dispossessed.