Thursday, December 1, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Siege of the Seven Suitors, by Meredith Nicholson

Old Bestseller: The Siege of the Seven Suitors, by Meredith Nicholson

a review by Rich Horton

This was a totally random, and quite delightful, discovery, in an antique store. I had never heard of Meredith Nicholson, but the title seemed intriguing, so I bought the book. And -- on reading it I was pleased throughout. It's a very lighthearted romantic romp -- not a deathless masterpiece by any means, but just a great deal of fun. My edition, quite possibly a first, is from Houghton Mifflin, October 1910, with color illustrations by C. Coles Phillips (for the cover and facing the title page), and interior pen and ink illustrations by Reginald Birch.

(cover illustration by C. Coles Phillips)
So then I looked up Nicholson and found, a bit to my surprise, that he truly was a successful writer in his day, if completely forgotten now. Three of his novels made the Publishers' Weekly list of top ten bestsellers of their year, though not The Siege of the Seven Suitors.

Meredith Nicholson was born in 1866 in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and moved to Indianapolis in 1872. He became a journalist at age 18, turning to a business venture in Denver in 1898. His first novel appeared in 1903, and his writing career continued for a quarter century. Towards the end of his life he turned actively to politics, as a Democrat, serving one term as an Indianapolis City Councilman, then serving as a diplomat in South America during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. He was married twice, and had four children. He died in 1947.

Nicholson was one of a group of fairly prominent Indiana writers in the early 20th Century, including also Booth Tarkington, George Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, and perhaps one might add Charles Major. (And he was published by the Indianapolis firm Bowen-Merrill (later Bobbs-Merrill).) None of those writers maintain much of a reputation (though Tarkington and Riley, at least, are still names one recognizes). (One other Indiana writer of that time does still remain somewhat well known, though his star too seems in decline: Theodore Dreiser.) Nicholson was, in most of his work, very much an Indiana partisan -- his stories were usually set in Indiana, and his non-fiction often centered directly on Hoosier themes. His most famous novel (for a fairly minimal value of "famous") might be The House of a Thousand Candles (1904), which was filmed in 1936.

And I would have guessed none of this Indiana connection from The Siege of the Seven Suitors, which is set in New York City and nearby suburbs (and which was published in 1910 by Houghton Mifflin). It seems very much of a piece with other early 20th Century novels of high society in the city ... much frothier, to be sure, than say Edith Wharton or even F. Hopkinson Smith. But still centrally concerned with the romantic and business affairs of the upper class in the big city. (And for that matter the brief introduction is addressed from Mackinac Island (in Michigan), by Nicholson, presumably to the Governor of Michigan ... though it has nothing to do with the book at hand.)

Arnold Ames Jr., a failed architect who has become an expert in chimney repairs, is the narrator, and we meet him dining in his club with his old friend Hartley Wiggins when he mentions his visit to the Asolando Tea Room. Wiggins interrogates him about the cashier -- it appears they are all young and pretty women of good social standing -- and otherwise acts evasive. Soon after, another member informs Ames that Wiggins has fallen in love with Cecelia Hollister, after meeting her in the Asolando. Ames, intrigued, returns to the Asolando, and happens to eat with a charming woman in her 60s, who flaunts her eccentricity -- and also insists that Ames visit her house in the country to work on the chimneys. Ames learns that this woman is Octavia Hollister, who has two nieces, Cecelia and the oddly named Hezekiah.
(illustration by C. Coles Phillips)

Ames, under the spell of the elder Miss Hollister's character, hies himself down to her place, where he is accepted as a guest. The chimneys at first appear to be in perfect working order -- and after all the house was designed by his good friend Pepperton -- and he wonders what he's doing there. He does meet Cecelia, who is every bit as beautiful and nice as advertised. He stumbles across a brief tryst between Cecelia and Hartley Wiggins, which suggests that she cares for him but doesn't want him to propose. And soon after, Ames is introduced to several other young men staying in the area, each of whom is in love with Cecelia. The group of men gather at Miss Hollister's house each evening, for conversation with Cecelia and, seemingly, evaluation by Octavia. And each evening the chimney mysteriously acts up -- though Ames can find nothing wrong with it. It is suggested that the ghost of a British soldier of the Revolutionary Era is haunting the house. Ames' next crucial meeting is with Hezekiah, a lovely young woman who seems to have a full share of her Aunt's eccentric ways (Cecelia is more conventional). Hezekiah tells Ames that she and her (and Cecelia's) father have been banned from Aunt Octavia's house until Cecelia has been engaged to one of her suitors.

So there are a few mysteries: what is causing the chimney to occasionally act up -- could it really be a ghost? What are Octavia's intentions regarding Cecelia -- who seems to care for Hartley Wiggins but to be constrained to marry whoever Octavia -- by whatever arcane means -- decides is the right choice? What are Hezekiah's intentions, as she leads Ames on several merry chases. Ames makes enemies of most of Cecelia's suitors (they seem jealous of his status as an actual houseguest), and he also annoys his assistant, who is left in New York to handle the chimney business while Ames dawdles at Miss Hollister's. Mix in the pies Octavia is required to bake as a condition for keeping the house, the question of Hartley's unfortunate Tory ancestry, Bassford Hollister and his daughter Cecelia fencing on the roof, Cecelia's disappearing silver notebook, and at least two apparent ghosts who interfere with Ames' investigations ... It's really quite a delightful (if fairly silly) concoction. I enjoyed it a great deal: it runs along until it threatens to wear out its welcome, then things are wrapped up rapidly (and not too plausibly, but who really cares?)

This is, certainly, a minor work, and dated, and it may not appeal much to many contemporary readers. I don't think Nicholson really deserves a significant revival, nor is he likely to get one. But at least he succeeded, here, in entertaining the reader, the first goal, one hopes, of most writers.

1 comment:

  1. Book can be read online/downloaded from the Internet Archive: