When Fiction Gives Birth to Fiction
Phan Ming Yen meditates on Tan Twan Eng's historical-fictive architecture.
By Phan Ming Yen
The House of Doors
Twelve years ago, I gave Tan Twan Eng's debut novel The Gift of Rain as a present to a Slovak friend. We were working on a cross-cultural exchange project, and a Czech translation of Tan's work, which is set in World War II Penang, was the only book from the Malaysia-Singapore region I could find in the largest bookshop at that time (and possibly still) in Bratislava.
I told my ground partner that I had enjoyed the book. I also told him that Singapore is not Penang, and Penang is not Singapore.
A month or so later, I received an email from him. He had finished the book, and he said: "What have you done to me? I want to go to Penang! I want to eat laksa!" My Slovak friend is an arts lover and a serious person. I took his comments as a testament to Tan's powers of persuasion and his uncanny ability to at once evoke vividly and hauntingly the physical and emotional landscape of the places and people he writes about.
So, in a similar vein, one could imagine this response to Tan's third and recent novel, The House of Doors: "What have you done to me? I want to read all of Somerset Maugham's stories! What is the truth behind the Ethel Proudlock case?"
At the heart of The House of Doors is an alternate-history version of the famous British writer and playwright Somerset Maugham's (1874–1965) visit to Malaya, and the Ethel Proudlock trial which he learnt about during that trip.
The historical facts – on which The House of Doors is based – are these: Maugham visited Malaya in 1921 and among the places he travelled to was Penang. By then, Maugham was already well-known in Malaya, albeit more as a playwright. The intention for his visit as reported in the 26 April 1921 edition of The Malaya Tribune during his stay in Singapore was as such: "W. Somerset Maugham the famous British playwright, some of whose productions are well-known here, is at present staying at the Van der Wijk Hotel. He is seeking some Eastern colour for some of his future work."
Maugham learnt about the Proudlock case from the lawyer E.A.S Wagner on his visit to Kuala Lumpur in the course of his trip. Ten years earlier in 1911, Ethel, wife of William Proudlock, a school master in Kuala Lumpur, was charged with the murder of one William Steward, a tin mine manager. She claimed that Steward had turned up at her house one evening when her husband was out and attempted to rape her. She shot him in self-defence. Wagner was her lawyer. The court, however, noted inconsistencies in her testimony and, based on circumstantial evidence, found her guilty of murder. Speculation remains as to what actually happened. Ethel launched a formal appeal while in prison and she was pardoned by the then Sultan of Selangor. She left immediately for England with her daughter. She died in the United States in 1974. Her husband took up a teaching job in South Africa and then in Argentina, eventually dying there in 1957.
Maugham's retelling of the Proudlock case in a work of short fiction, 'The Letter', first appeared in 1924 in a magazine and subsequently in the collection of short stories, The Casuarina Tree, in 1926.
The popularity and success of 'The Letter' was far reaching. Maugham adapted it into a play of the same name in 1927. The short story was made into a film twice, with the 1940 adaptation starring Bette Davis receiving seven Academy Awards nominations. The story has also been adapted for television, and an operatic version was staged in 2009.
The impact of Maugham's short fiction set in Malaya remains (for better or worse) till today. As literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly once wrote: "If all else perish, there will remain a storyteller's world from Singapore to Marquesas that is exclusively and forever Maugham…"
Alternating between a narrative in the first-person from the viewpoint of protagonist Lesley Hamlyn, a music-teacher turned socialite after her marriage to a well-known barrister, and a third-person account of Maugham's stay in Penang, The House of Doors is a well-crafted, cleverly structured and layered counterfactual-history take on the actual events leading to the writing of 'The Letter' and how the title The Casuarina Tree came about.
In The Summing Up, Maugham wrote that "Sometimes an experience I have had has served as a theme… more often I have taken persons with whom I have been slightly or intimately acquainted and used them as the foundation for characters of my invention. Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it. I can hardly distinguish one from the other." The aforementioned lines serve as an epigraph for Tan's novel.
The House of Doors thus is about fiction giving birth to fiction: the characters and incidents in Tan's novel references Maugham's 'The Letter' and other stories such as 'P & O', 'The Outstation' and 'The Yellow Streak' in The Casuarina Tree as if they were the actual source of inspiration for those works.
In The House of Doors it is the fictional Lesley Hamlyn who tells the story of the 1911 Proudlock case to Maugham when he and his secretary, Gerald Haxton, are guests at the Hamylns' home during their Penang visit. Lesley herself is made out to be a friend of Ethel's and was a witness during the trial.
The names of Tan's protagonist in his novel and Maugham's in 'The Letter' are homonyms: "Leslie" being the name of Maugham's protagonist in 'The Letter'. Such play on words extends also to the family names. In Tan's novel, Lesley Hamlyn's maiden name is "Lesley Crosby" while the married name of Maugham's femme fatale is "Leslie Crosbie". Tan's choice of the family name "Hamlyn" is surely deliberate. It is the same as that of the protagonist – referred to only as "Mrs Hamlyn" – in 'P & O' about a married woman coming to terms with her husband's infidelity as she returns to England alone. Lesley Hamlyn in turn discovers her husband is having a secret love affair. The Hamlyns' neighbour in Penang are the Warburtons, the name of the British resident in 'The Outstation'.
As Robert Hamlyn, Lesley's husband, says to her towards the close of the novel after they had read The Casuarina Tree: "We got off lightly, I suppose – even if he did cast you as a murderess. The bloody cheek of the man."
Tan's fictional Maugham also shares with Lesley an incident in which the historical Maugham nearly lost his life at a tidal bore during a visit to Sarawak. The historical Maugham later used this misadventure as a basis for 'The Yellow Streak' as he wrote in the postscript to The Casuarina Tree. And finally, the novel suggests that Maugham was inspired by the eponymous tree in the grounds of the Hamylns' house to name his collection The Casuarina Tree.
But beyond this homage to Maugham, Tan has created another story and another level of entry for the reader to The House of Doors. The Proudlock case is not the only story that Lesley tells the fictional Maugham, and Maugham is not the only historical character in the novel.
The other stories which Lesley shares with Maugham is that of her love affair with a Straits-born Chinese doctor in 1910 during the occasion of Sun Yat Sen's visit to Penang and of her discovery of her husband's affair with his Chinese male assistant. As the Proudlock case unfolds, Lesley finds herself also swept by the revolutionary fervour of Sun and those in Penang who rally behind him, her lover being one of them. The title of the novel takes its name from what Lesley calls the house where the two lovers conduct their clandestine liaison.
That the fictional Maugham eventually chooses not to turn Lesley's and Robert's affairs into works of fiction is Tan's nod to the discretion of the historical Maugham. In Tan's novel, Maugham was not a writer who would just pick up "some local scandal as an out-station and (dish) it up as a short story" and who had explained "the worst and least representative aspects of European life in Malaya – murder, cowardice, drink, seduction, adultery…", as he was depicted in an article in The Straits Budget of June 1938.
Notwithstanding dramatic licence with chronology such as the setting of the Proudlock case in 1910 instead of 1911 to coincide with Sun's visit to name, and Maugham visited Sarawak after his travel to Penang and not before as depicted in the novel, readers will find Tan's imaginative blurring of lines between fact and fiction a fascinating, delightful and involving read.
Of equal significance is what appears (at least for me) to be Tan's restraint in his style – especially in his treatment of Lesley's love affair – as compared to his two earlier works. It is as if the book is a self-conscious reflection of Maugham's aesthetic that prose "needs taste rather than power, decorum rather than inspiration and vigour rather than grandeur".
In Ten Novels and Their Authors, Maugham wrote that there "is no obligation to read a work of fiction". Those who do not like Maugham or have no interest in history may find no compelling reason to pick up The House of Doors. But for those curious about the fuss over Maugham – there is a suite in Singapore's Raffles Hotel named after him and he gave the hotel permission to use his quote "Raffles Hotel stands for all the fables of the Exotic East" – The House of Doors may just leave them wanting to start on Maugham and the Ethel Proudlock case.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023