“Roman Fever”, first published in Liberty magazine in 1934, is a short story by Edith Wharton detailing a conversation between two wealthy, middle-aged women. The two women, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are visiting Rome with their daughters, who for the duration of their conversation have run off on adventures with a pair of Italian aviators. Grace and Alida, both widowed by well-to-do husbands, begin their conversation by discussing their children, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade. It’s revealed that Alida Slade figures Barbara to be a vibrant young woman, something that has always surprised her given what she perceives as a sort of dullness in both Grace and her late husband. A sense of competition, perhaps even outright animosity, between the two women of high Manhattan culture is uncovered through the course of their talks as the topic of conversation moves from their daughters to the womens’ pasts. It is revealed that in their youth, the jealous Alida Slade forged a letter from her husband-to-be to Grace Ansley in order to expose her frailty to the cold weather, a pretty horrible revelation from one supposed friend to another. Grace Ansley then reveals that, even though this letter was forged, she wrote back to the young Mr. Slade and spent an evening with him. In the final twist of the story, Alida Slade says bitterly that, in the end, she got to be with her husband for twenty-five years while Mrs. Ansley had nothing of him except for a fake letter. Grace Ansley replies to this by saying simply, “I had Barbara,” implying that Barbara is in fact the child of Mr. Slade, a revelation that was foreshadowed by Alida’s earlier musings on the character and personality of the daughters. What then, does this complicated backstory reveal about the relationships between those occupying the New York aristocracy during the Gilded Age?
The confessions that are revealed throughout the course of the story work to pull back the veneer of polite society that Edith Wharton herself was intimately familiar with. I think the sort of upheaval that is found in the story and which constitutes much basis for the emotional stakes in the narrative is best summed up by the following articulation of the sort of dispassionate and performative friendship that might have been common amongst the types of characters described in the story: “…and for a few moments the two ladies, who had been intimate since childhood, reflected how little they knew each other.” Despite having known each other their entire lives, the coldness inherent in their relationship and the (thus far) unspoken competition bred a dynamic between the two women which the story “Roman Fever” is able to exploit for a dramatic third act revelation. The story and its twist seem to work in a way that exposes not only the potential for seedy drama even amongst the New York aristocracy, but it also comments on the inability of these two life long friends to fully understand each other. Both Grace and Alida are revealed to be remarkably similar through the ways in which they connive each other in their social competition, but this similarity does not breed intimacy so much as it breeds contempt.
The line describing the two womens’ lack of knowledge of each other is immediately followed by an idiosyncratic truth that seems to be imbued with the author’s own personal experience. It’s said that both Grace and Alida “had a label ready to attach to the other’s name.” Alida Slade’s label for her friend is, as expected, polite but also self-serving in the way in which humor is derived from subtle criticism and gossip about her friend. The competition between these two socialites, it seems, primarily takes the form of talking behind each others’ backs. However, no punches are held in the climactic showdown between Grace and Alida; there is no polite company to monitor them, and the secrets are revealed in a volatile manner. Initially, there is still the pretense of civility: “Mrs. Ansley was still looking at her. It seemed to Mrs. Slade that a slow struggle was going on behind the voluntarily controlled mask of her small quiet face.” But ultimately the latent animosity between rivals becomes clear; as Wharton puts it, “The sneer was open now.” The story is effective not only in creating a detailed portrait of the conduct of those inhabiting New York’s upper crust during the Gilded Age, (Grace and Alida being representative of this society), but it is also effective in the way in which it lends familiarity to the characters through a very human conflict. And it’s a conflict with sex and revenge, not exactly what one might initally expect from a story about knitting middle aged mothers.
Wharton, Edith, and Maureen Howard. Collected Stories. Library of America, 2001.