Monday, July 15, 2024

How author Tan Twan Eng reimagined a century-old scandal in ‘The House of Doors’

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“The Letter,” a short story by W. Somerset Maughan, was inspired by the 1911 trial of Ethel Proudlock, a teacher’s wife living in Malaysia who shot and killed a man at her home while claiming self-defense. These events, and the subsequent references to them in Maughan’s 1926 story collection “The Casuarina Tree,” scandalized the White society members of Malaya, the then British-occupied territory.

It was during his teenage years growing up in Malaysia that author Tan Twan Eng discovered “The Letter” and told himself he’d write about it one day. 

“I was intrigued by the fact Maughan based the story on a murder trial which had taken place in Kuala Lumpur, where I was living,” Eng said. “The trial happened more than 100 years ago today, and I just found it interesting that nobody I knew seemed to know about it.”

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Eng uses “The Letter” and its writer, Maughan, as a real-life anchor for his latest work of historical fiction, “The House of Doors,” out from Bloomsbury. 

Maughan is a part-time narrator in the book, which fills in the details of his visit to Penang in the early 1920s (which inspired “The Casuarina Tree”), his interactions with British colonial society and his identity as a not-quite-out queer man in the time after Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for gross indecency. 

He is also a confessor of sorts to the book’s other narrator, Lesley Hamlyn, a (fictional) friend of Ethel’s who feels so stifled by society that she finds an outlet in secretly supporting famed real-life Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen. As the two narrators become friends and grow closer, Lesley slowly reveals more of the events behind the Proudlock case.

In this tale of fact blended with fiction, Eng explores racial privilege, the politics of love and marriage and the conventions that shackled people even at the furthest edges of the British Empire. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What led you to land on W. Somerset Maughan, a real person, as one of the main characters?

With “The House of Doors,” I was, in many ways, trying to do a reverse engineering process. I wanted to explore how Maughan came to write “The Letter.” How did he hear about the story? And how much did he transform the story from its origins? So he had to be there; he had to be one of the main characters. 

I found him fascinating. I did a lot of research on him, and I found that he lived a long life. He was almost 100 years old when he died. When he first started traveling in the early 1900s, he was traveling on steamships. Towards the end of his life, when he traveled to Japan, he flew on a jet plane. So he’s seen a huge span of our modern history. I felt that he would make an interesting observer of events as they happened.

Q. How did you do the research for this book? Were there any texts that influenced you?

For Maughan’s character, I think I read almost every biography about him, as well as all of his short stories and his novels. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos of him talking. I wanted to catch how he sounded and how he acted.

Researching the trial itself was more difficult because not much was written about it, and what there was might not be reliable. So in the end, I tracked down the actual transcripts from the trial. I had to look everywhere for them. The trial took place in Kuala Lumpur, but for some strange reason, the Malaysian archives didn’t have the transcripts. Eventually, I found them in Singapore. The problem was that the quality and standards of court reporting 100 years ago was quite patchy and uneven, with many gaps, so I really had to reconstruct everything. Thankfully, I used to be a lawyer, so that helped … but I still had to fill in a lot of the gaps myself.

When researching Sun Yat Sen, I found maybe two or three books written in English, and I don’t read Chinese, so it was quite difficult. I was fortunate that in Penang, the building that served as his headquarters is today a little museum dedicated to him. So that was useful because I could see the building, I could walk in there and I could imagine what he said. The people running the museum were quite knowledgeable about Sun Yat Sen, so I talked to them for a bit to find out what he was like.

One of the other origins of “The House of Doors,” is a short story by Colm Tóibín. It was called “Silence” and it’s in an anthology called “The Empty Family.” It’s about a real-life woman named Lady Gregory who sits next to Henry James at a dinner party and tells him her story, or variations of it, about publishing her poetry under her lover’s name, because as a woman, her work could not be published. She hoped that something of what she told Henry James would inspire him to write a story about her. When I read that, years ago, I thought, “What a sad, sad story about a woman who did not want to be erased by history, and yet had no avenues to leave a mark on the world.” 

Q. Can you talk a bit about the marriages and affairs in the book? They drive so much of the plot.

After I read through the draft, I thought, “Oh my goodness, this book is about a very angry woman who was enraged by the constraints that society puts on her.” But I realized that you can’t write about a woman 100 years ago without pushing against the limitations society imposed upon them of being a wife and mother. That’s one of the reasons why Lesley is so angry and dissatisfied, because she’s a very intelligent woman, but there’s no outlet for her to express her abilities and her creativity. Sun Yat Sen is sort of an outlet for her to enlarge her world. 

Husbands had more freedom, especially to have affairs outside of marriage, but only to a point. William Somerset Maughan had a daughter with his wife, but was in a long-term relationship with his lover Gerald Haxton. After the Oscar Wilde trials, Maughan felt more compelled to maintain that front because he was terrified that what happened to Wilde would happen to him as well. Wilde’s punishment was a warning to all other gay people at the time.

Q. What draws you to writing historical fiction in particular? 

I’ve always been interested in history. I find it’s not a collection of facts or data, but stories. For a writer, that’s a rich mine of resources and ideas. It’s also fascinating for me to compare the past with what I know today – I’m interested in how the past still influences and messes up the present.

That’s how history works, isn’t it? Everything’s connected. All you have to do is pick up one end of it, then you discover this whole chain and links that lead you to keep digging. It’s fascinating to see what you can find along the way.

Q. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

I hope they will read “The Letter,” because I wanted both works to mirror each other. The slightest change in how you perceive the events of “The Letter” would affect your understanding of “The House of Doors,” which may shift your perception again, and it would go back and forth until the reader becomes a bit confused as to what is real and what is fiction. That’s the effect I was hoping to achieve – so if people haven’t read “The Letter” before reading this book, I hope they do after.

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