Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Liberty (10 November 1934): 10-14; collected in The World Over (New York & London: Appleton-Century, 1936)
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is best known for her intimately detailed portraits of class conflict, and in particular of the so-called leisure class, traditional and
hypocritical social mores and practices, and relationships between and among men and women that are psychological, at times compromised, and always complicated. Born into a wealthy family in New York City, Wharton lived on inherited wealth as an adult, which allowed her frequent and lengthy travels in Europe. Her early stories began to appear at the end of the Victorian era; early reviewers praised her craftsmanship, but, Helen Killoran explains, “they held two culturally ingrained prejudices against her”—first, she was a female writer, one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “scribbling women,” and second, she belonged to old money of Manhattan. “Charges abounded,” Killoran notes, “that her upper-class characters, based on the privileged ‘four hundred,’ constituted too narrow a subject matter.” During Wharton’s life “critics grudgingly admired her craftsmanship, but backhandedly referred to it as too clever and too artificial. Then, as if in an attempt to explain the mystery of such artificially clever fiction, they created a myth that imagined her seated at the feet of the man who became known as the ‘The Master,’ Henry James.” Yet, The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, several collections of short fiction, letters, poems, and an autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), published three years before her death, cemented her place in the pantheon of American literature. Critics, however, would not elevate her into such rarefied air until the release of her private papers in 1968 and R. W. B. Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Wharton in 1975.
Among her short stories, “Roman Fever” is one of the best known. It encapsulates not only the travels of wealthy Americans tourists in Europe, a theme that Wharton returns to again and again, but also the incisive and barbed world of women of this social set in the early decades of the twentieth century. These are women who knew their best exercise of power came among, and often at the expense of, each other. Millicent Bell suggests that Wharton “distinguished herself from those fashionable women whom she satirized years later in ‘Roman Fever’ by turning the pleasure of Italy into a fact of knowledge and enlightened creative labor.”
The product of a trip to Rome, “Roman Fever” is set on a terrace restaurant overlooking the ruins of Rome and at first seems to be little more than a sketch of reminiscences between two women, described by the narrator as “two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age,” who have both traveled to Rome with their now-adult daughters. Two matriarchs of respected families, Mrs. Alida Slade and Mrs. Grace Ansley have been lifelong friends, due to their common social class, rather than any true liking of each other. What is clear are their feelings, not quite of contempt for each other, but of a distrusting wariness based on some historical moment in their relationship that is revealed at the end of the story.
That Wharton has set this story in Rome—outside of the United States— illustrates the tension she felt in American society. “She inevitably found,” Katherine Joslin and Alan Price suggest, that her significant time abroad and “her developing sensibility put her out of step with the native rhythms of the United States.” As an adult, she, like so many other women writers such as Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Alice James, underwent neurologist S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure,” as a way, Joslin and Price note, “to curb the intellectual and artistic tendencies of women, whose duties supposedly belonged to the prosaic world of upper-middle-class domesticity.” Still, it was to this world she returned, setting her characters within the Europe that she knew so well, but bringing with them the baggage of being an American of a certain social and cultural class.
The seemingly calm demeanor of “Roman Fever,” however—two middleaged women sitting on a terrace engaged in conversation and knitting—contains a more biting indictment than perhaps either Mrs. Slade or Mrs. Ansley realize. Their two daughters, who have left their mothers that afternoon to realize more exciting possibilities in Rome, say of their mothers: “‘let’s leave the young things to their knitting’; and a voice as fresh laughed back: ‘Oh, look here, Babs, not actually knitting—‘Well, I mean figuratively,’ rejoined the first. ‘After all, we haven’t left our poor parents much else to do.’” Alice Hall Petry suggests that the daughter’s appraisal of their mothers as “young things” is “mocking,” and the “implication is clearly that the ladies are physically, emotionally, and intellectually capable of nothing more than the traditionally passive, repetitive, and undemanding task of knitting. By having the daughters patronize their mothers in this fashion, Wharton is predisposing the reader to perceive the ladies as stereotypical matrons; and the rest of the story is devoted to obliterating this stereotype, to exposing the intense passions that have been seething in both women for more than twenty-five years.”
As “Roman Fever” unfolds, the reader learns that Slade and Ansley first met as young women visiting Rome with their families, and have lived most of their adult lives across the street from each other in New York, eyeing each other’s comings and goings with both a noticeable commonality—both have been widowed—and unexpressed competitiveness. Now, they have returned to Rome decades later with their daughters: Jenny Slade is dull and sensible, and Barbara Ansley is vivid and dramatic, apparently unlike either of her parents. Mrs. Slade even says of her own daughter: “Oh, my girl’s perfect; if I were a chronic invalid I’d—well, I think I’d rather be in Jenny’s hands. There must be times . . . but there! I always wanted a brilliant daughter . . . and never quite understood why I got an angel instead.”
The climactic moment in the story comes at the end, when the women’s conversations escalate the obvious tension of some personal travesty unstated, but known by both of the women. The narrator reveals, through the women’s dialogue, the long-simmering crisis, pinpointed to a time in their blossoming youth when both were in Rome and being courted. Alida Slade is finally angry enough to confront Grace Ansley for having gone to meet her fiance illicitly in the shadows of the Colosseum. “‘Well,’” she says, “‘you went to meet the man I was engaged to—and I can repeat every word of the letter that took you there.’” Mrs. Ansley’s “unsteady” rise to her feet, and her knitting bag and gloves sliding to the ground in a “panic-stricken heap” is all the confirmation the reader needs to know that the accusation is true, a seething, simmering secret harbored for years finally publicly acknowledged.
But there are three last damaging admissions. Mrs. Slade admits to writing the letter and signing her fiance’s name. Cognizant of the concerns about contracting “Roman fever” (malaria is the less romanticized name of the disease) from the cold dampness that settled among the ruins at night and which provided attractive cover for trysts between lovers, the young Alida deliberately lured the young Grace to the same ruins in the hope that Grace would contract the illness. Recounted family history of the “dreadfully wicked” great-aunt Harriet, who sent her young sister out to the Forum after sunset purportedly to gather flowers, but, according to speculation, because she and her sister were in love with the same man, sets the scene for the revelation between Alida and Grace to follow. That the great-aunt’s story ends in tragedy—her younger sister did, in fact, die of the fever—establishes the awful stakes such women engaged in as they sought to protect their futures as married women. (“Roman fever” also is used by Henry James in his novella Daisy Miller  to punish the flirty young American woman of the title, who contracts the fever after visiting the Colosseum at night.)
Yet, as damning as Alida’s forged love letter is to Grace, it is Grace who has the last two most powerful plays. Once Alida announces her trickery, the narrator notes that “The flame of her wrath had already sunk, and she wondered why she had ever thought there would be any satisfaction in inflicting so purposeless a wound on her friend.” Seeking to justify her actions, Alida admits to Grace the fear she had of losing Delphin, her fiance. “So in a blind fury I wrote that letter.” What she fails to realize, however, was that the tryst between Grace and Delphin did occur that evening years ago because Grace had answered the letter: “I told him I’d be there. So he came.”
And what results is the most damning twist of all in “Roman Fever” and the lives of its two middle-aged matriarchs. Alida Slade, after having finally confessed to the forgery and the jealousy she felt so many years ago, capitulating but proud that “Yes, I was beaten there. But I oughtn’t to begrudge it to you, I suppose. At the end of all these years. After all, I had everything; I had him for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter that he didn’t write.” Grace Ansley, hurriedly married to another man two months after the rendezvous on the Forum with Delphin, simply replies: “I had Barbara.”
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
1. What had seemed at the outset to be a story of middle-aged American tourists resting for an afternoon on a restaurant terrace in Rome concludes with incidences of sexual promiscuity and infidelity, pregnancy outside of marriage, innuendo and lies, savage cruelty, and a now-chaotic microcosmic family structure and macrocosmic social structure. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney argues even more pointedly that the title of “Roman Fever” alludes to the differences that Rome represents to each generation of women in this story: “‘sentimental dangers,’ filial disobedience, love-sickness, sexual jealousy, illegitimate pregnancy, and the longing for new or foreign experiences that Wharton elsewhere calls ‘travel-fever.’ These different things have one common characteristic: all are experiences prohibited to women.” And these women’s experiences are worth exploring in “Roman Fever” and other works by Wharton. How, for example, do Ansley and Slade live typical women’s lives according to their class? How do their daughters, the next generation, compare to them? Why are men absent in the story, particularly when compared to other Wharton stories and novels where men play more prominent roles? Sweeney also notes how Henry James had used the trope of illness, or “Roman fever,” in Daisy Miller. Does Wharton in effect respond to James in her story?
2. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues, the satire Wharton employs in the short story places an enormous amount of responsibility on the reader. “The stakes are not clear (as they might be in a business transaction), nor is the eventual outcome. Who was the winner of this convoluted game? . . . Can an astute reader make a more accurate assessment?” For the story to end with the declaration by Grace Ansley that the one-night tryst resulted in a child requires that the reader, as Wolff avers, determine if there ever can be “a winner in a competition that has been defined in the way this one has.” And this is, perhaps, the striking subtlety of “Roman Fever,” a slowly building story of longtime competitors who find that their real power lies in their womanhood, and learn that such power is fleetingly compromised and readily stolen, at best. As critics at the start of Wharton’s career and those over the past century have noted, she possessed a keen and sharp sense of human nature and women’s sensibilities and an exquisite pen that allowed language to flourish and incisively cut through the social complications of early-twentieth-century America.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
A biographical account of Wharton’s development as an important novelist, accompanied by detailed readings of her major novels and of her unpublished fictions and autobiographical recollections.
Millicent Bell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton (Cambridge, England & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
A collection of essays by distinguished scholars that covers Wharton’s most important novels, as well as some of her shorter fiction. The introduction supplies a valuable review of the history of Wharton criticism; a detailed chronology of her life and publications and a useful bibliography of important books for further reading are also provided.
Katherine Joslin and Alan Price, Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe (New York: Peter Lang, 1993).
Considers Wharton as a cross-cultural writer, a self-described “wretched exotic”—an American by birth but a European by inclination.
Helen Killoran, The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001).
Traces and analyzes the development of Whartonian literary criticism in its historical and political contexts; also considers Wharton’s own criticism.
Alice Hall Petry, “A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 24 (Spring 1987): 163-166.
Considers the motif of knitting in the tale as a “complex personal emblem.”
Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, “Edith Wharton’s Case of Roman Fever,” in Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe, edited by Katherine Joslin and Alan Price (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 335-354.
Focuses on the story’s setting within the historical context of Rome and the fear of Roman fever, as well as the technical, medical phenomenon of malaria. The article also considers Wharton’s use of the trope of illness in relationship to Henry James’s use of Roman fever in Daisy Miller.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Introduction,” in Wharton’s Roman Fever and Other Stories (New York: Collier, 1987), pp. ix-xx.
Notes that Wharton shows her skill “in dissecting the elements of emotional subtleties, moral ambiguities, and the implications of social restrictions.” Specifically, Wolff suggests Wharton takes particular aim at women’s lives within marriage, and the sociopolitical restrictions in which their lives operate.