The House of Doors
“The House of Doors is a fascinating, beautiful book. One doesn’t have to know anything about Somerset Maugham to appreciate it, but the echoes make the work even richer.”
The House of Doors is an elaborate, beautifully written novel about memory, marriage, desire, and storytelling. At the heart of this mix of fact and fiction are two characters: the British author Somerset Maugham, now pretty much forgotten but once one of the most successful novelists and playwrights of the last century, and Lesley Hamlyn, born and raised among the British colonials in Malaysia and married to a colonial lawyer.
For two weeks in 1921, Maugham and his secretary-lover Gerald Haxton stayed with the Hamlyns at their estate. Maugham has just discovered that all his investments have vaporized and that he must quickly write a work popular enough to salvage his finances. Lesley gives him the material for the volume that will be his financial lifeline. In fact, she tells him two stories: one he turns into “The Letter,” one of his most popular stories that became a hit play and a hit film; the other he is discreet enough to keep to himself.
Many of the details of Maugham’s life and work that are mentioned in The House of Doors are biographically accurate. He was in an unhappy marriage to his wife, Syrie, who became a famous interior designer, and he was in love with the feckless, alcoholic Gerald Haxton. His friends accepted this relationship at a time when homosexually was not socially acceptable. Maugham had to accept Gerald’s drinking and his promiscuity. In fact, much of Maugham’s work is about the tension between monogamous marriage and complex human desire.
The stories that Maugham supposedly writes while visiting the Hamlyns, which are included in the bestselling volume The Casuarina Tree (published in 1926), are about love outside of marriage and loves that lead to violence. The setting is the British colonial society of Malaysia, rife with a sense of cultural superiority and ruled by strict social norms. Hypocrisy was one of Maugham’s principal themes. Eng’s novel, more complex and elegantly written than Maugham’s work, focuses on layers of secrets that both threaten and sustain marriages. “Every marriage has its own rules” becomes the motto for the entire novel as it is a key theme in Maugham’s work.
Both of the stories Lesley tells Maugham take place a decade before his visit. One involves a Ethel Proudlock, a young British woman who shoots six bullets into her lover. Of course, no colonial court will sentence a white woman to death. Ethel is found guilty but on appeal banished from Malaysia. She is shunned by her colonial friends, not so much because of her crime as the fact that her sentence was commuted by the Malaysian sultan, a non-white. In Eng’s novel, Maugham turns the story Lesley tells him into “The Letter.” Eng’s version of the story is more complex than Maugham’s, more the expression of a network of masculine power.
The second story Lesley tells Maugham is of her affair with Arthur Oh, a Chinese doctor who is a disciple of Sun Yat Sen. When Lesley discovers that her husband is having an affair with his Chinese male law clerk, she feels free to exercise more autonomy. She becomes involved in Sun Yat Sen’s cause and begins to sleep with Arthur in his House of Doors, a beautiful and romantic setting for their trysts. Arthur collects painted doors and hangs them in the house his grandmother has left him. The hanging doors, tools of enclosure, become beautifully painted images of freedom: “The doors spun slowly in the air, like leaves spiralling in a gentle wind, forever falling, never to touch the earth.” Lesley and Arthur’s intimacy only exists in the House of Doors.
Lesley is a proto-feminist, admiring the fact that the mid-19th century Taiping rebels viewed women as the equal of men, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. Lesley observes, “I can’t think of the last time in history, and in any other place in the world, when a similar thing had taken place.” She bristles against the double standard that allows men to have mistresses but excoriates women who break their marriage vows. She will keep her husband’s affair with a young Chinese man a secret because exposure would ruin the entire family. She also sets strict rules for her affair with Arthur. It is to exist only in the House of Doors. There will be no letters or other artifacts that could lead to exposure.
Lesley recollects all this in 1947, as she sits of the stoop of her home in the South African countryside. The move from Penang had been to preserve her husband’s lungs, which were weakened by the damp tropical air. Now a widow, she loves her new landscape but is also lost in memories of her life in Penang, and particularly her brief friendship with Maugham, her involvement in Sun Yat Sen’s cause, and her affair with Arthur. She recalls her acts of freedom—dressing in native garb for public functions and nightime naked swimming with Maugham in a sea phosphorescent with glowing plankton.
Eng alternates the first-person recollections of Lesley with Maugham’s experiences, written in the third-person narrative style he favored. Where Maugham always saw his characters from a satirical, superior distance, always attuned to social hypocrisy, Eng sees the various lies, secrets, and silences as part of a complex pattern of love and loyalty.
Maugham was fascinated with the sights and sounds of the Far East and the racial and ethnic mix of Malaysia, but he was also aware of the British refusal to accept other races as equal or worthy. Eng offers a social world on the cusp of radical social change where the races are joined by love. The colonial world Maugham depicted is long dead, yet Eng can look back on Maugham’s world with compassion.
The House of Doors is a fascinating, beautiful book. One doesn’t have to know anything about Somerset Maugham to appreciate it, but the echoes make the work even richer. It will be particularly meaningful to Asiaphiles. Eng’s fine novel is an ambitious work that takes the reader to a time and place on the verge of radical change. His heroine, Lesley, is a harbinger of those changes.