Below-stairs mischief

Murder on the Verandah: love and betrayal in British Malaya

Eric Lawlor <em>HarperCollins, 268pp,

Part life imitating art, part a kind of lower-middle-class anticipation of the Lord Erroll murder case in Happy Valley, Kenya in 1941, the Proudlock affair was the great cause celebre of British rule in Malaya, and as such was taken over wholesale by Somerset Maugham in The Letter. Though Maugham changed names to protect the innocent (and the guilty), the essence is the same. A woman commits manslaughter, claims she was defending her honour against attempted rape, but is then found to have murdered her lover when he announced he was leaving her. As in the Happy Valley case in Kenya, reputations are destroyed, individuals ostracised, appearance is preferred to reality and, most importantly, the credibility of the British ruling elite put on the line.

On 23 April 1911 in Kuala Lumpur the 25-year-old Eurasian Ethel Proudlock, wife of an English schoolmaster, shot dead a mine manager named William Steward. Tried for murder, she pleaded self-defence against Steward's attempt to ravish her and claimed she had never been alone with him before. Tried before a judge and two "assessors" (there was no jury trial then in Malaya), Mrs Proudlock was found guilty as a result of glaring inconsistencies in her story and other circumstantial evidence. Despite the fervent pleas of her husband, who believed in her innocence, she was condemned to death and reprieved only on the intervention of the Sultan of Selangor, the figurehead "ruler" of the country.

Granted a full pardon - to the considerable irritation of the judge and the British rulers in Malaya - Ethel, to all appearances by now a deranged invalid, departed for England with her husband and three-year-old daughter. Only much later did the full details of a 12-month passionate affair with Steward emerge.

This is an interesting story, and one that Lawlor tells in a lively and readable way, but the book has powerful flaws (even if we omit to mention the lamentable lack of a single photograph of Ethel among the illustrations). In the first place, the story is a relatively straightforward one, and to plump out the volume he turns the case into an excuse for a mini-social history of British Malaya, which stretches beyond the requirements of contextualisation.

Having stretched his material in one direction, Lawlor then distorts it in another, tendentiously arguing that the Proudlock case was the defining moment of the British in Malaya, the beginning of a downward path that culminated in the humiliation of the colonial rulers by the Japanese in 1941. Yet he nowhere makes out this case and, in any event, it is contradicted by his assertion that the ruling elite put Ethel Proudlock on trial precisely because she was Eurasian and therefore a sacrificial scapegoat pour encourager les autres. To have brought to trial a genuine memsahib on such charges, he implies, might have destroyed British credibility with the "natives".

But the most notable contradiction is between the publisher's blurb and Lawlor's own account. The blurb states that "when Ethel Proudlock left Penang in 1911, she was alone, her husband having been detained in Kuala Lumpur . . . It is not known if they ever saw each other again, nor what became of their child. In 1918 she was confined to a mental institution." Yet Lawlor's book tells us that the Proudlocks emigrated to Manitoba, Canada, crossed the border to the American Midwest in 1916 and became naturalised US citizens. William Proudlock appears to have died in the Midwest, but Ethel lived subsequently in New York and Florida, and died in 1974, aged 88. Lawlor also provides a capsule biography of Ethel's daughter, Dorothy. William Steward did not deserve to be shot, but perhaps someone in the HarperCollins office does.

Frank McLynn's most recent book is "1066" (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)