Visits are great engines for storytelling and from Jane Austen to Ali Smith, here are some of the best
Two of the most vivid images I carry with me from my childhood reading concern the arrival of a guest. The first is from Carmilla, the early vampire novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I found the story in my parents’ library, in an anthology of gothic horror, and scared myself half to death reading it. I still don’t like vampire stories. The second is more benign: the children’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Both involve carriages rushing through the dark and the anticipation of change that a guest brings.
Allegedly there are only two kinds of story: someone goes on a journey, or someone comes to town. Either way the person has to stay somewhere, so the houseguest story is everywhere once you start looking for it. When I asked on Facebook for favourite examples, I received a flood of suggestions, many more than I would have guessed and ranging across all forms, from plays (Albee’s A Delicate Balance) to short stories (Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest) to novels (Hartley’s The Go-Between).
My own new novel, Rules for Visiting, follows a woman as she becomes something of a serial houseguest, having set her mind on visiting, one by one, a group of her oldest friends. She is particular in her ways and wants to be a good guest, so she arms herself with the original 1922 edition of Emily Post’s guide to etiquette and gifts for her hosts. Her greatest gift, however, may be her willingness to travel for the sake of friendship.
Just in time for the summer visiting season, here are 10 unforgettable fictional spare-room residents.
1. King Lear by William Shakespeare
From one point of view, Lear is a failed houseguest. After the division of his kingdom, he plans to stay with his daughters Regan and Goneril. But when they object to what he wants to bring with him (namely, a number of men and horses), he winds up homeless. A cautionary tale about assuming you will always have a place to stay.
2. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
The unnamed narrator of Poe’s story endures one of the worst houseguest experiences in all literature. When he arrives at the behest of the ailing Roderick Usher, he has no idea what he is getting into. The ending supplies a great metaphor for a visit that doesn’t go to plan, but I’ll refrain from spoilers.
3. Howards End by EM Forster
Forster’s novel opens with Helen Schlegel staying for a few days at the country home of the Wilcox family. This sets in motion the social and romantic entangling of the two very different families. You don’t get a plot like this one started with a simple day trip.
4. According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge
In this brilliant novel, Bainbridge imagines the year 1764, when Samuel Johnson met the Thrale family and became a regular houseguest at their home in then-rural Southwark. In the novel, Hester Thrale gives him his own room, which he often doesn’t leave. The scenes of the household functioning around the resident irascible genius are priceless.
Read more: www.theguardian.com