The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 13th October

Don’t outstay your welcome, says Thomas, and do make a thoughtful contribution
Dear Thomas

I was amused by a recent piece in The Times revealing that the 10-year friendship between Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen failed to survive the latter’s visit to the author’s Kent home when he outstayed his welcome by three weeks, ‘driving Dickens to distraction’. As if it wasn’t slightly presumptuous of HCA to have invited himself in the first place. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to share your thoughts on what makes an ideal house guest, outlining the dos and don’ts. Thank you – your column is always my first port of call when The Lady arrives!
Jean Clark (subscriber)
Eastbourne , East Sussex

Dear Jean

Fascinating. I think I’m right in saying that Dickens managed to live in the same house as his wife for years and years without speaking to her. Some kind of barricade was erected between them as I recall. So how on earth did Hans Christian Andersen manage to enrage the author in a mere three weeks? To be fair, in the days when people had servants and big houses, it was more usual to ‘propose yourself’ for a visit. Plus with horse- drawn transport it was minimum stay one month – not worth it otherwise. You remember Elizabeth Bennet stayed with the Collinses for several weeks. Nowadays she could have whizzed round the M25 for lunch – it was only from Hertfordshire to Kent – and forgone all those endless evenings being insulted by Lady Catherine. But even now you hear of people inviting themselves for a long visit – usually family members from afar. Australians living in Europe are probably the world experts on managing such situations. The month or six-week house guest goes out on their own. They’re not always there, hanging around. It’s a fine line. Cringing and apologetic quickly becomes pass-agg (have you heard this marvellous new way of saying ‘passive-aggressive’?) and attention- seeking. The best guests know when to make themselves scarce and when to be present. An alternative is to be like one of those poor relations in a play by Chekhov who came to stay for a week 40 years ago and has been there ever since, forgotten in a corner and no trouble to anyone. But this is rare. It’s nice to contribute practically but get it right. Do the hosts rinse the washing-up? If yes, then you should too. Is it really the right time to switch on the dishwasher? Best to ask. Presents are welcome, but it’s not necessary to guiltily ‘pay for your stay’. Some guests feel that a new dishcloth is in order or an extra wastepaper basket for the hall. This can be all right – or a disaster. My uncle decided to make us a cutlery divider for our cutlery drawer. I remember tremendous carpentry going on during his stay in about 1964. It’s still there, the cutlery divider: a great success.

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