The Letter (1940) was based on the murder of a William Steward by Mrs Ethel Proudlock. It was a sensational case which crossed both racial boundaries (the presence of natives in the trial was said to have caused great unease as it diminished the status of the morally superior British colonials) and conventions expected of British women.
After the judge found Mrs Proudlock guilty of murder, those who firmly believed her innocence naturally began speculating. While some British Malayans (i.e. British who have stayed in Malaya) might have protested against the authenticity of Maugham’s short story, later to be adapted into a play and two successful Hollywood movies, it is clear that his account is not the most imaginative. Here are some of the other contenders:
1) Ethel had more than one affair and a second suitor shot Steward once he realised this scandalous state of affairs. Well, more scandalous than having an affair with a married woman, that is.
2) William Proudlock was the true murderer, having set a trap for Steward and murdered the other William for cuckolding him. Threatening to expose them and destroy Ethel’s reputation, William Proudlock forced his wife to take the rap. Clearly, Ethel’s reputation was to be ruined anyway.
3) Both William Steward and Proudlock had hatched a plan gone awry to help Proudlock get out of a loveless marriage. Steward was to attempt to seduce Ethel, and Proudlock will arrive just in time to ‘discover’ them. Unfortunately, William didn’t get there in time to finish Act II of their half-hatched play, and Steward was dead by then.
Regardless of the speculations, the Sultan of Selangor decided to use his royal pardon, after William Proudlock’s failed attempts at moving King George V into doing the same.
I have little doubt that if the native element had been eliminated and the Sultan had not expressed such a strong wish, the result would have been a commutation of the sentence to a term of imprisonment.
Reluctantly, J. O. Anthonisz (Acting British Resident, Selangor), wrote about the free pardon granted to Ethel Proudlock here. Considering her testimony to contain “too much elaboration…to have been thought out or suggested to her”, the acting Resident subscribed to the Medical Officer Dr Gibbs’ diagnosis that she had loss of memory, a “distinctive feature in all cases of ‘transitory mania’ such as ‘amok’ &c”. It is interesting to note the application of a malaise attributed to natives (i.e. amok), to Ethel Proudlock, who was Eurasian, though of very European upbringing.
Ethel Proudlock was released and almost immediately returned to England, with her daughter. William stayed for some months, before leaving Victoria Institute to rejoin his family.
Catch the screening of The Letter (1940) at the NUS Museum to watch a fictionalized re-construction of events of the trial of Mrs Proudlock!
 As described by Eric Lawlor in Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), pp. 40-41