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Philippa Stockley, novelist

April 20, 2010
by the gentle author

This is Philippa Stockley, novelist and painter, who lives in an old house at the back of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel with her cat Battie, named after the famous Dr Battie that once lived nearby and treated patients with mental illness (renowned also for his bat like ears), who became the origin of the colloquial term “battie” for insane.

I offer you this diverting story of Dr Battie as a single example of the myriad pieces of unlikely and intriguing information that garnish Philippa’s astoundingly articulate conversational style, making it quite an adventure even to sit down for a chat with her. She has that rare gift of confiding such informed observations of the world, couched with a particular elegant levity, that it makes you feel very intelligent simply to be the recipient of her insights and in turn you strive to match this eloquence, in order to return the compliment, which results in a conversation with as many swift twists and turns as the tango music that was playing on her stereo when I arrived. The dialogue was advancing at a break-neck pace, until Battie jumped onto the table next to Philippa’s chair which was the cue for her to engage in a nose-rubbing battle with her cat, allowing me time to collect my thoughts, being unused to such sharp company.

I shall never be able to establish whether Philippa Stockley always wears a glamorous dress and a silk shawl in the afternoon, which is surely the prerogative of a novelist, or whether this dazzling outfit was for my benefit, but I was certainly impressed to step from the dusty street and follow the trail of her perfume into the parlour where I took her portrait. There was something familiar about the pose she assumed, the décolletage and the satin drape. “Who was that seventeenth century painter who painted ladies in silks?” I asked rhetorically, to distract her as I composed the picture,“Lely,” she replied without pause for thought or even having to search.

Like many smart women, Philippa Stockley wears her intelligence lightly and describes her achievements in the context of her shortcomings. Having revealed that she wrote her first novel, “The Edge of Pleasure,” in two weeks, writing two thousand words a day – six thousands words some days – to complete it in sixteen days and selling it the week after, she then qualified the story by informing me that she could not drive, swim or run. I think we can overlook these deficiencies in the roll call of Ms Stockley’s accomplishments, because I have no doubt that there are always plenty of volunteers eager to drive the charming novelist wherever she pleases to go, also available to dive in and rescue her if she were drowning, and equally delighted to run that vital errand on her behalf whenever it should be required.

“I was so excited.” she enthused, “Those two weeks were the best two weeks of my life because I had no idea what I was going to write about. I didn’t know my characters’ names and I couldn’t believe how they just walked into my pages fully dressed. I wondered what they were going to do next. Once the story began I couldn’t stop it.” In retrospect, Philippa Stockley treasures the experience of her first novel because it was something that could not be replicated, “So you think this is easy, but then you discover it’s hard. Your heart tells you, you can do it, but your brain insists you cannot. The next one took two years but I was also working full-time and I never took a day off. I wrote every evening, every weekend and through Christmas.”

After a degree in English at Oxford, Philippa Stockley studied at the Courtauld Institute where she wrote a thesis upon costume in the novels of Fielding and Defoe which gave her an introduction to the background of her second novel, “The Factory of Cunning.” It was envisaged as the sequel to “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” which Laclos had intended to write but never got the chance. Philippa read texts of the period for a year before launching into an elaborately plotted drama that brings the Marquise de Merteil (who escapes at the end of Laclos’ novel) to England where she adopts the name Mrs Fox, using her wit and ingenuity to forge a new life exploiting the debauchery, romance, intrigue and avarice that comprised eighteenth century London.“I had this character Mrs Fox and I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with her story,” recalled Philippa fondly.

She turned down a three book contract when her first novel was published and has never accepted commissions, preferring to pursue her writing on her own terms, which is a rare course of action when most people who would be eager to accept the money. Instead, she has remained true to the capricious art of novel-writing, chosing to put the manuscript of her third novel in a drawer for over a year because she was dissatisfied.“I think I spliced a truck onto the back of a bus,” she explained bluntly, “I am going to reread it and rewrite the second half.”

At this point in our conversation, Philippa poured herself a generous glass of sherry and produced a box of chocolate mint wafers to bolster her spirits, as we made our way into the garden in hopes of a fleeting pool of sunshine cast beneath the April sky and she revealed that this was only the second interview she had ever given. I feared I had stirred up such a multitude of thoughts, asking her to account for her writing, that I left her now with her head spinning. Fulfilling his role as a writer’s pet magnificently, Battie gambolled on the lawn to provide respite.

We talked about Dickens and his extraordinarily tenacious ability to pursue a narrative without looking back. “All roads lead somewhere,” said Philippa, in unquestionable confident summation. The tantalising paradox is that writers set puzzles for themselves to solve, acting in blind faith that there is a solution, knowing that they alone can find it and then setting out to write their way there. “It sounds mysterious but really there is no mystery,” Philippa declared brightly, trying hard to persuade herself, as she sipped her sherry in the sunshine, her red hair glowing with light and her pale hands turning blue with cold.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Rebecca permalink
    April 20, 2010

    Lovely photo, and so right that you updated the pose with what looks like an answerphone at her elbow and a printer behind, in place of a stack of books, exotic crockery, or other token of 18th c. life.

  2. Anne permalink
    April 20, 2010

    What an interesting lady and the photo of Battie is perfect , it is posed so well and looks very sphinx like .

  3. April 20, 2010

    lucky you, to spend the day in such charming company! your photos are becoming more vivid i’m noticing….spring must be coming to london!

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