In The Letter (1940), the discovery of an illicit letter unravels Leslie’s claim that she killed a man in self-defence. Unlike the dramatised account of Maugham, there appeared to be no such climatic pieces of evidence in the trial of Ethel Proudlock in 1911. There was, however, a controversial letter — penned not by the defendant, but the defendant’s husband– addressed not secretly to an alleged adulterer, but to the British public.
In a letter published in a London weekly called M.A.P. (Mostly About People), William Proudlock criticised the Selangor government for the unfair nature of the trial of his wife. Explaining that his goal was to call to
the attention of the British public to the state of things in [Malaya] which I feel sure every rightminded Britisher will heartily condemn. The press out here has apparently been unable to induce the authorities to abandon trial by assessors in favour of trial by jury and so, off my own bat, I am going to see what I can do in the way of moving the authorities at Home
He goes on to list a few irregularities, which would have resulted in a mistrial had it happened in more recent times. For one, the assessors were business associates, making the number of effective valid assessors a grand total of one. Moreover, the assessors were allowed to mix freely with one another and the general public, calling into question their objectivity. Not only was the judicial system flawed, but the investigation was questioned too; William criticised the conduct of the chief commissioner, who went around the Selangor Club in search of men, offering to bet “anything he liked that she would be strung up”. Hardly the best example of impartiality, though William’s accusation that the detective-inspector had beaten Proudlock’s servants who refused to incriminate their mem might have crossed the line.
Even the High Commissioner for the FMS, was obliged to write an editorial which described William as “the man with the mud-rake” and the letter as a “concoction of insinuation” with the “main intention to throw mud at the judicial, magisterial and police administration in the FMS and to impugn the fairmindedness of the justice who presided at the trial, the assessors…assisting him, the prosecution and the medical witness.”
William Proudlock was not the only one writing letters to plead for his wife’s innocence. Unsurprisingly, his father, also wrote to Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary then, on his daughter-in-law’s behalf.
A truly surprising letter, was that from the brother of the victim, as seen below:
Unfortunately, none of these letters worked as well as Maugham’s fictionalized letter in his short story. Ethel Proudlock was still charged, though reluctantly released when the Sultan of Selangor pardoned her. William Proudlock was convicted of gross and malicious libel and fined $300 on November 11, 1911, as a result of this letter. He resigned from his job at the Victoria Institution shortly later and departed the capital of FMS on 21 November 1911, never to return.
Eric Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), pp. 53-69
Full version of Proudlock’s damning letter: CO273 380 Wm Proudlock
W.W. Douglas, Commissioner of Police, letter of self-defence: CO273 375 Douglas to CO on letter of allegations
Arthur Young, High Commissioner for F.M.S.’s response: CO273 375 FMS to CO on letter of allegations