Summer reading: Edith Wharton and “Roman Fever”

Edith Wharton

Roman Fever

I suspect that for many Americans of my vintage, Edith Wharton remains linked more to Ethan Frome (often required reading in the high school English classes of Baby Boomers) than to The Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel tracing the tension between individual happiness and social propriety; lushly filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1993, The Age of Innocence now defines the author in the public imagination.

The Age of Innocence is more representative of Wharton’s writing—it reflects her nuanced world view, her keen appreciation of how society’s mores can stunt or suffocate love. And her natural home territory is the upper class environs of turn-of-the-century New York, not the stark New England landscape of Ethan Frome.

I count myself lucky that I didn’t stop reading Wharton after Ethan Frome: her clear-eyed observations of the way men and women relate, of the dynamics of courtship and marriage, of the conflict between social responsibility and freedom, continue to engage and entertain. And like William Makepeace Thackery and Anthony Trollope, she writes openly about wealth and social status and selfishness, about the “fear of falling” from the ranks of the privileged, and about social climbing and snobbery (eternal themes in even the most outwardly democratic of societies.)

Wharton understood that manners and money did not transform human nature for the better: the well-connected and publicly high-minded elite were capable of greed, envy, resentment, jealousy, and infidelity behind closed doors. She knew that first hand, trapped in a loveless marriage to an older Boston banker, a womanizer; her affair with journalist William Morton Fullerton ended badly (she regretted that she wasn’t “younger and prettier.”) So she was no stranger to heart ache, or disappointment, or the difficulties of love.

Two Narratives

One of the reasons I admire “Roman Fever” is the way Wharton offers us one story (two middle-aged New York women on holiday with their daughters in Rome) and employs its superficiality to hint at another, more complex narrative, one linked to an earlier visit to the Italian capital. The matrons, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley (“two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age”), have known each other for more than 25 years, but there seems something lacking in the friendship.

The two are widows; Alida made the better match, marrying the vigorous Delphin Slade, “the famous corporation lawyer,” while Grace’s husband, Horace Ansley was (to quote Alida) a “nullity,” a “museum specimen of old New York.” Alida sees Grace as old-fashioned, timid, intent on her knitting project while ignoring the beauties of Rome around them; Grace, in turn, finds Alida “too brilliant by half” and somehow sees her as a figure to be pitied (“Mrs. Ansley had always been rather sorry for her…”). “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope,” we are told, again with the hint that all is not what it seems.

There is also a note of competition—especially when men are concerned. Their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade, are portrayed as vying for the attentions of a handsome Italian aristocrat and Alida Slade fears that the more engaging girl, Barbara, will win him. She confesses this worry to Grace, light-heartedly, but with a touch of malice: “And I was wondering, ever so respectfully, you understand… wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace had managed to produce anything quite so dynamic.”

This current rivalry stirs memories for the women; they had been in Rome together twenty-five years before, when Delphin Slade was courting Alida. Slowly we learn that there had been a subtle, hidden competition for Slade that winter, and that Alida had worried that Grace would take her fiance away from her.

As they talk, Alida has something to confess, a transgression from the past: she admits to forging a letter from Delphin to Grace, luring her friend to an imagined assignation at the Colosseum. Alida admits that she hoped Grace would catch a “Roman fever” in the night air and become sick, but then rationalizes her actions as “sort of a joke.”

“Well, girls are ferocious sometimes, you know. Girls in love especially. And I remember laughing to myself all that evening at the idea that you were waiting around there in the dark, dodging out of sight, listening for every sound, trying to get in—of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward.”

As “Roman Fever” closes (with an ironic ending worthy of O. Henry) we learn that Alida’s scheme has backfired; while Alida has believed that she has “won” (“You tried your best to get him away from me, didn’t you? But you failed; and I kept him. That’s all.”), in fact, she had not been able to keep Delphin Slade exclusively for herself.

The entire action of the story takes place on the terrace of a Roman restaurant; the women sit in “derelict basket chairs” as they talk. Again there is the contrast between the surface impression and the reality; an innocuous conversation takes a different turn and awakens violent emotions. And for most of the story, we have been looking through the “wrong end of the telescope,” ignorant of the truth.

Wharton had read the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer (products of “the wonder-world of nineteenth century science,” she wrote); their theories on evolution and social competition have clearly had some influence on her. The women in “Roman Fever” compete for virile men (such as Delphin Slade and the Italian Marchese); they do not let social niceties stand in the way (Spenser on human nature: “red in tooth and claw”); producing attractive and dynamic children serves as one measure of winning. Indeed, today’s evolutionary psychologists would find much that is familiar in “Roman Fever.” There is more to “Roman Fever” than Darwin’s framework for sexual selection, of course, and it would be a disservice to Wharton and her craft to embrace a purely reductionist reading, but the thematic inspiration seems clear.

“Roman Fever” appeals to the 21st century reader not because of its “scientific” grounding (although Wharton records the mating rites and rituals of her tribe with the precision of a cultural anthropologist), but because of its universality. The story of Alida and Grace (and, Wharton suggests, of Barbara and Jenny,) will be repeated whenever friendship and love collide, with love (the strongest instinct?) the odds-on winner.

This is the fifth in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006. I’ve chosen to write about a number of my favorite short stories and their authors:

Short Fictions: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Short Fictions: Doris Lessing

Short Fictions: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

Short Fictions: Ursula K. Le Guin

(You can find some of my own short fiction here).

The link for the reviewed story: Edith Wharton: “Roman Fever and Other Stories”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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