Beware the Writer as Houseguest

Consider the writer as houseguest. Is it a good idea to invite someone into your home whose occupation it is to observe everything? The writer as host might be no better. Even the most thoughtful guest will undoubtedly interfere with the writer’s productivity during the visit. It’s really no surprise that people who write for a living have given us some of our wisest sayings about a visit’s proper length.

It was a delightful visit — perfect in being much too short (Jane Austen)

Fish and visitors stink in three days (Benjamin Franklin)

Superior people never make long visits (Marianne Moore)

If you doubt their seriousness, take note: When Hans Christian Andersen stayed with Charles Dickens three weeks longer than originally planned, their friendship never recovered.

Still, lengthy visits have played an important role in a number of literary lives — writers who, intentionally or not, leveraged being a houseguest into an asset.

Samuel Johnson’s house in London was full of people reliant on him in one way or another. When he needed respite, he traveled to Streatham Park, outside London, to be the houseguest of the Thrales. He was such a frequent visitor that he had his own room and was treated as a member of the family, his likes and dislikes known, his various ailments — melancholia, insomnia — understood. These trips to the countryside offered a psychological solace he could achieve only in the care of Streatham’s mistress, the devoted Hester Thrale. She kept the house quiet for him and provided interesting dinner guests for conversation in the evening. He worked if he could, or waited out the depressions that often overwhelmed him. For a distressed author it was the ideal arrangement — not unlike any number of residencies for which writers compete today.

Henry James, too, while an expatriate writer in Europe making only a modest living from his writing, gained access to a range of social circles by being an intrepid houseguest. He once admitted that his best story ideas came from dinner table gossip. An inveterate eavesdropper, he insisted that he was mindful to listen just enough to leave room for invention. Whether his hosts always found his presence equally advantageous is unclear.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge also thrived as a guest. He lived with the Wordsworths for weeks at a time, often working or talking with his hosts into the night. The arrangement was a productive one for all of them, but Wordsworth later described Coleridge to a mutual friend as “an absolute nuisance” who “was rotting out his entrails by intemperance.” When not dosing himself with laudanum, Coleridge drank gin, and often woke screaming in the night, terrifying Wordsworth’s family.

The original 1922 edition of Emily Post’s guide to manners has pages and pages of directives for hosts, including that a good host should periodically spend 24 hours in her guest room to better understand its strengths and weaknesses. About being a guest she writes only: “The perfect guest not only tries to wear becoming clothes but tries to put on an equally becoming mental attitude.”

That’s a lot of work for the modern sensibility, which might go some way to explaining why use of the word “houseguest” rose after World War II, peaked around the millennium and seems to be on the decline in our current era of Airbnb. But look at what can arise from the intimacy of shared space: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her future husband, Percy Shelley, were guests of Lord Byron in a villa on Lake Geneva that cold, wet June of 1816 when she started her famous ghost story. Then she finished “Frankenstein” back in England the following year in a house full of guests (a number of whom stayed for two and a half months!), along with six small children and a husband who did little to help.

If the guest/host relationship served to foster creativity in this era, though, few wrote about it. One of the few poems on the theme I have found was written much later: W. H. Auden’s “For Friends Only,” an ode to the benefits of having a guest room. There are some great party hosts in literature — Fezziwig, Mrs. Dalloway, Jay Gatsby — but few who have to consider the care and feeding of visitors for a night or more. Mrs. Wilcox of “Howards End” comes to mind, but she spends most of her time in the garden and then dies. Bad hosts, however, can drive a plot. Think of Goneril and Regan, Roderick Usher or Mrs. Danvers. Perhaps the general reticence on the subject stemmed from a suspicion that to bare one’s true feelings about the difficulty of hosting and visiting is to risk fewer invitations — the very thing many writers depended on for room and board and emotional succor, not to mention material.

A few years ago I started a novel about a woman who decides to visit each of her friends, one by one, as a way to figure out how to live. If, as the adage goes, friends are the family we choose, she’s worried she hasn’t worked hard enough to find them. She decides that she must show up — must go and see them in person — to counteract the distancing forces of social media, emojis and FaceTime. She travels to her friends in order to see them in their lives, which isn’t easy, but she makes the best of it.

The language of modern visiting is often filled with burden. We urge our hosts, Don’t go to any trouble. We say, I don’t want to put you out. We’ve already lost letter writing, and I worry sometimes that we’re losing the art of visiting, too. I’d like to try to live by the epigraph to Helen Garner’s “The Spare Room,” a thoughtful novel about the intricacies of the modern guest/host relationship: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.” The Greeks thought so. The ancient epics are filled with journeys and visits and much is made of everyone retiring for the night to a notably soft bed. I have only a sofa bed, but I am working on making it welcoming.

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