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.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Austen’s novels are filled with visiting. She wrote in an era when going to stay with family or friends was an established way for an unmarried woman to meet a husband or make herself useful to those who already had them. Thanks to a rainy day, Jane Bennet winds up a sickly houseguest and her sister Elizabeth must come to her rescue – initiating all the celebrated romantic attachments of the story.
6. There but for the by Ali Smith
Speaking of guests who won’t leave, in this novel, a man retreats upstairs during a dinner party and locks himself in the host’s guest room. There but for the contains the best, most wonderful indictment of a certain kind of hostess I’ve ever read. “There is lovely, lovely furniture in there,” she says. “It is a really outstanding spare room in there. Everybody who has stayed there has told us so.”
7. The Spare Room by Helen Garner
In this gorgeous novel, a spare room is used quite differently: the narrator prepares it for a visit from her friend Nicola, who is dying. What follows is a muted battle of wills, between life and death, and hostess and guest.
8. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Levy brings two English couples to Nice for a holiday and puts a stranger in their rented villa’s swimming pool. Do they send her away? Invite her to stay? For various reasons, the stranger is given the extra, under-furnished room in the villa, and her odd but compelling presence alters everything.
9. Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky
A swimming pool features in this delectable novel, too, Dermansky’s fourth, due out in in July. When Zahid Azzam becomes the houseguest of the mother of one of his creative writing students, all kinds of boundaries are crossed. No one is entirely innocent in this addictive story of money, sex, and bad house manners.
10. For Friends Only by WH Auden
This is really an ode to having a spare room and the only poem about preparing for houseguests that I have found. I love the end of the first stanza and what it says about the importance of visiting: “This room awaits from you / What you alone, as visitor, can bring, / A weekend of personal life.” Face-to-face time with our faraway friends, something we too easily forget in this age of social media.
• Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane is published by Granta. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.