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Critical Essay: The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson
Meredith Nicholson's The House of a Thousand Candles was first published in November 1905 and soon skyrocketed onto the bestseller list. The book sold so well into the following year that it made the overall bestseller list for 1906 (Hackett, 70). Although Meredith Nicholson had had a previous novel on a bestseller list for a few months, this book was his first widely selling book. In fact, The House of a Thousand Candles turned out to be his greatest literary success and made Nicholson extremely famous (American National Biography, 408). The book was so famous in fact that a drama adapted from the novel played in three foreign countries and two motion pictures were made from it (American National Biography, 408). In order for the book of this relatively unknown author to enjoy such great success, a variety of factors were implemented that ultimately appealed to a large majority of readers and critics. The thrilling plot line riddled with witty humor combined with the innovative new genre of part adventure-mystery and part romance most assuredly contributed to the book's achievement at becoming a national bestseller. In addition, the intense advertising campaign carried out by the book's publisher, the Bobbs-Merrill Company, and the relative stability of the early 1900s attracted a large readership that was well in want of a story so charmingly intriguing as this bestseller. All in all, the sheer literary genius of Nicholson combined with his partnership with an aggressive publishing company ultimately made The House of a Thousand Candles into a highly acclaimed national bestseller.
In the December 2,1905 edition of the Publisher's Weekly, the Bobbs-Merrill Company advertised The House of a Thousand Candles as "a novel of romance and adventure, of love and valor, of mystery and hidden treasure." It also claimed that the book would "set your pulse a-beating and hold you fast by its entrancing charms." In short, the publishers claimed this book was "one of the strongest, cleanest, freshest novels in many a day." These claims presented by the publishers appear to hold true as evident in a simple summary of the novel itself. An old gentleman, reputed to be rather eccentric and extremely rich, dies in Vermont. All that remains besides a faithful servant is an unfinished Indiana estate with the nickname the House of a Thousand Candles because the deceased gentlemen preferred candles to electricity with which to light the immense house. His supposed fortune has mysteriously disappeared and is rumored to be hidden in the house somewhere amidst the various subterranean passages and strange crypts and tunnels. His grandson, John Glenarm, who rather prefers the life of adventure in foreign lands, does not share the gentlemen's obvious interest in architecture, much to his regret. Nonetheless, the grandfather words his will so that his grandson has to remain for a year in the House of a Thousand Candles essentially cut off from the outside world and in doing so hopefully turn the grandson's interests upon the house itself and its architecture. It is also stated in the will that if young John Glenarm should not follow along with the explicit wishes of the will then the property would be given to a Marian Devereaux, the niece of the nun that runs St. Agatha's School, a private girls school located right next to the famed estate. The will also forbids any marriage or promise of marriage between Miss Devereaux and John Glenarm or the property will be forfeited from both parties to land in the hands of St. Agatha's School. The executor of the estate, a lawyer named Pickering, proves to be the villain in the novel that tries to use a band of motley men to find the hidden treasure before young John Glenarm does. Pickering adds more complication to the life of this young man by falling in love with Marian who John inadvertently ends up falling in love with as well through interactions brought about by Marian's adventures on the Glenarm estate as a supposed schoolgirl named Olivia. Besides witty humor and some romance, the story is filled with brawls, shootings, and escapades into the secret tunnels with John's two friends. In the end, the grandfather comes back from the dead and appears at the climax of the attack on the Glenarm estate with the help of Marian. The villain is found out, the location of the fortune revealed, and the good guys triumph. John settles in the estate with his grandfather and the love story completes itself with the marriage of John to Marian. This story truly combines a large variety of elements that undoubtedly applied to an immense readership.
The House of a Thousand Candles was "one of the first hits in the mystery-adventure field which was not a costume romance" (Hackett, 70). Besides being a "story bristling with adventure," The House of a Thousand Candles was a tale inspired by the novels of Graustark and Hope around this time period in the 20th century (NY Times Book Review, 905). On this subject, Meredith Nicholson once wrote, "At this time there was a deluge of tales in imitation of Anthony Hope's ?Prisoner of Zenda.' It occurred to me to show if possible that a romantic tale could be written, without an ?imaginary kingdom,' with the scene in our own Indiana" (American National Biography, 408). In writing this bestseller, Nicholson said that these books "inspired him to see what could be done with a picaresque adventure tale in an American setting" (World Authors, 1919).
This type of innovative book that united a multitude of genres not only resulted from the author's public persona but also from the ease and stability of the early 20th century. In terms of the author himself, Meredith Nicholson was described in quite a positive light, which undoubtedly had some affect on the type of novels he wrote and their subsequent success especially in terms of The House of a Thousand Candles. Nicholson was remarked as having a personal magnetism and charm that were very great. "With a humor and a light touch, he preached the healthy pursuit of happiness and a faith in the goodness of ?folks'" (Dictionary of American Biography, 630). It is clear from even the aforementioned summary of this bestseller that Nicholson's endearing character shines through not only the plot line but also through the novel's characters as well. His novels, on the whole, were noted as having stories where evil characters were disposed and happiness was showered on the deserving. Furthermore, Nicholson's usual novel was one that "allowed young love to triumph over difficulties and featured good living and the essential worth of people" (American National Biography, 408). The House of a Thousand Candles is undoubtedly a story where these elements conglomerate together and, as a result, become an extremely popular novel that appealed to a large readership through the early 20th century. Besides the influence of Meredith Nicholson's charming character and faith in the good of man, this bestseller was also a product of the time period in which it was written. The early 1900s was a time that valued such men as Nicholson and it is no wonder that he was driven to write a novel that enforced these ideals. The House of a Thousand Candles has been called "a classic of its kind: sheer unadulterated turn-of-the-century romanticism" (Sutherland, 134). In short, this novel was the "product of a relaxed era, expansive and assured, which found some measure of change from its tranquil pace in the orderly and controlled papers of literary romance" (Sutherland, 134). Ultimately, this national bestseller was facilitated by not only the values and stability indicative of the early 20th century but also the type of genre popular at that time.
As mentioned in earlier assignments, the Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company went to great lengths to advertise The House of a Thousand Candles well before the expected release date with enticing plot excerpts and praise. It can even be conjectured that the November release date of the novel was made in order to correspond to the large sales, which were indicative of the upcoming holiday season in December. With the proper advertising and the perfectly timed release during the holiday boom-time, the novel was sure to make it to the bestseller list and, in fact, it did. The novel's popularity especially during this time was no big surprise for it was "a carefully told tale, easy to read, charming an evening before the fire" (Gordon, 67). Through the rapid success of this bestseller, Nicholson was commended for having so "aptly touched the public taste is no mean accomplishment" (Gordon, 67). As mentioned earlier in this essay, the public taste during the early 20th century was well suited for the sound ideals evident in not only Nicholson's public persona but also in The House of a Thousand Candles itself.
To ensure the novel's popularity, the Bobbs-Merrill Company drove an aggressive ad campaign where most, if not all, advertisements contained glowing praise by a myriad of newspapers and reviewers, which is clearly obvious in the editions of Publisher's Weekly for late 1905 through 1906. It is interesting to note, however, that this aggressive advertising campaign strategy did not last. Editions of Publisher's Weekly for the years following 1906 show no mention of The House of a Thousand Candles. It appears that this novel's popularity dramatically waned after 1906. But in the December 22, 1947 New York Times obituary for Meredith Nicholson, it stated that 'The House of a Thousand Candles' was for more than thirty years one of his [Nicholson's] outstanding works" (21). Evidently, although this novel was not assertively advertised, it did enjoy long lasting popularity in terms of readership for the obituary also mentioned that the book was still popular in libraries. The multi-faceted genre of this bestseller as well as the performances in other media especially the 1936 version of the movie ensured its popularity through the early 1900s to the middle of the 20th century. It is interesting to note that the story line of the 1936 motion picture does not resemble Nicholson's original plot at all. One can only conjecture that the book was simply made popular by the movie purely on the basis of a shared name. Even though, The House of a Thousand Candles is not as widely read as it was in the earlier part of the 20th century, praises for this book are still noted in the biographies that exist on the author, Meredith Nicholson. This fresh and exciting story is still considered the work that truly made Nicholson's career.
Meredith Nicholson's The House of a Thousand Candles novel enjoyed immense success during the early part of the 20th century. The innovative multi-faceted genre and the sound ideals enforced in the novel as seen in the public persona of Nicholson himself helped to ensure the novel's popularity. With the help of an aggressive advertising campaign by the Bobbs-Merrill Company and the thrilling plot line within the novel itself, it is no wonder that The House of a Thousand Candles became a national bestseller in such a tremendously short period of time.
*House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson
*Facts on File Bibliography of American Fiction: 1866-1918, 293-294
Indiana Authors and their Books by Banta
*The Men Who Make Our Novels by George Gordon, 64-68
Indiana and Indianans Vol. III by Jacob Piatt Dunn, 1526-1528
*The Kentucky Historical Society Register, April 1967, "The Kentucky Girl in Two Literary Classics" by Raymond Carter Sutherland, 134-143
*American History and Life, via Virgo [search for House of a Thousand Candles]
*The New York Times Book Review 1905, 16 December, 905
*World Authors 1900-1950, 1919
*New York Times, Dec 22 1947, 21, (Microfilm 1947 Dec 21-30)
*Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4 1946-1950, 629-630
*American National Biography, Volume 16, 407-409
*Publisher's Weekly, July-Dec 1905, v.68, (Microfilm S-13, reel 28) [specifically December 2, 1905 edition, p.1619]
*Publisher's Weekly, Jan-June 1906, v.69, (Microfilm S-13, reel 29) [specifically January 20, 1906 edition, p.66 and March 17, 1906, p.917]
*Hackett, 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975