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Roman Fever and Other Stories (original 1964; edition 1997)

by Edith Wharton

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Member:Chatterbox
Title:Roman Fever and Other Stories
Authors:Edith Wharton
Info:Scribner (1997), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:Short Stories

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Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton (1964)

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The short story Roman Fever first appeared in 1934 – although this particular collection wasn’t published until 1964 these stories come from across the long period in which Edith Wharton was writing. I assume, therefore, that these stories probably do appear in collections first published during Wharton’s lifetime.

The title story of this collection also appears in The Persephone book of short stories – memorable for its final line – it is the perfect story to start off this little collection, and one I was very happy to revisit. It is a little piece of perfection from Edith Wharton. Two middle ages matrons; Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are in Rome with their daughters, the two women don’t move from their position on a terrace overlooking the city they each have reason to remember from their youth.

“ ‘I always used to think’ Mrs Slade continued, ‘that our mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in – didn’t they?’
She turned again toward Mrs Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘One, two, three – slip two; yes, they must have been she assented without looking up.”

The two women have known each other many years, first as young women brought to Rome by their mothers, and later living on the same street in New York as married women. Their friendship is gradually revealed to exist only superficially. While their daughters go off together to explore the city, to have fun, the older women stay behind, knitting rolled up in their bags, reminiscing over past days. It’s a masterly example of subtlety, as the true nature of Grace and Alida’s jealousies and a long-held secret are unearthed through their conversation.

The remaining stories were all new to me, they are all excellent in their way, but although there are only eight in the collection, I won’t be discussing each of them. Famous for her stories depicting the upper echelons of New York society, the themes Wharton explores in these stories feel very familiar. Many of these stories show the contradictions in a society of slowly shifting mores. The daughters of women whose lives were once so narrowed by convention, find their lives easier, their lives less judged than their mothers’. In others Wharton details the absurdities of the conventional society she was a part of.

In Xingu Wharton’s wry humour is revealed as she portrays the intellectual snobbery of a society ladies lunch group. The women meet to discuss the latest books or ideas, there seems little enjoyment, and a good deal of anxiety among the women who try to outdo each other in intellectualism. Mrs Roby is the newest member of the group – and the other women are already questioning her suitability.

“…it was now openly recognised that as a member of the Lunch club Mrs Roby was a failure. ‘It all comes.’ As Miss Van Vluyck put it, ‘of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.’”

Celebrated writer Osric Dane has been invited to attend the next meeting to be held at the house of Mrs Ballinger. All the women are nervous about the meeting – nobody wants to show themselves up in front of the guest. Mrs Roby however, when the great day arrives, has her own interesting way of turning the conversation. Highlighting the snobberies of the women who have been sitting in judgement of her.

Mr Waythorn is a newly married husband in The other two, his wife only thirty five, is twice divorced with a twelve year old daughter. Society is changing, attitudes now much more tolerant to divorced women. However, Waythorn has the embarrassment of having to deal with both of his wife’s former husbands. This is something, society has certainly not prepared him.

Souls Belated is one story in which the hypocrisies of society thwart the happiness of people caught by its conventions. Lydia has left her husband, and is now travelling in Europe with her lover Gannett. Lydia and Gannett find a quiet hotel to settle in temporarily yet they find that the conventions that society put upon them, mean they must either lie about being married – or slip away to Paris and get married. Lydia doesn’t want to get married eager to pull away from the conventions she so hates. So much goes unspoken between Lydia and Gannett, and the reader fears they will remain so.

With The Angel at the grave Wharton highlights the plight of Victorian women who sacrifice their lives to the men of their families. In this case a granddaughter spends her whole life trying to keep the memory of her grandfather and his life’s work alive to others. In doing so, she ends up having no life of her own, it’s a sad and no doubt all true tale of pointless sacrifice, it was also my least favourite out of a truly superb collection.

“All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring.”

Autres Temps… the final story of the collection was certainly (along with the title story) one of my favourites. Again, we see the hypocrisy of society, as the rules applied to the younger generation are not advanced to the older generation who have suffered under their strictures for years. Mrs Lidcote is a woman who broke societies rules twenty years earlier when she divorced, she has been living abroad in exile, shunned by everyone in her society ever since. Upon hearing that her beloved daughter Leila has divorced, and immediately remarried, Mrs Lidcote hurries back to New York. However, she is made aware that society doesn’t care that Leila has divorced and remarried, her daughter isn’t shunned, her remarriage is accepted and her second husband in line for an enviable appointment. Mrs Lidcote begins to wonder whether these new acceptances might not after all be applied to her – that perhaps now, finally she too may be able to find happiness with a man she has held at arm’s length. Society, however it seems is not so rational as all that.

These stories show Edith Wharton at her best, wry, satirical and astutely observed – she examines the changes in society and how it treats those who flout its rules. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Mar 25, 2017 |
The lead into the story sets an uneasy tone of distance between the two women. The author begins the story by showing us the two mothers sitting on a terrace of a roman restaurant. The distance is well represented in the text by the careful word choice, for example, in the lead the women “looked first at each other, and then down on the out spread glories of Palatine and the Form.” This looking at each other then looking out at the scene before them is the sort of thing that strangers or acquaintances would do. As the reader gets more into the story, the author again sets the distance between the two women, “perhaps we didn’t know much more about each other.” When Mrs. Ansley says this to Mrs. Slade, it conveys to the reader that Mrs. Ansley is hiding something from her companion. Again, the author shows us space between the two, “for a few moments the two ladies, who had been intimate since childhood, reflected on how little they knew each other.”


As the two women reflect, they both stereotype each other into neat little molds in their heads without ever scratching below the surface. Their friendship exists only on a superficial level. Mrs. Slade as described by Mrs. Ansley was beautiful and vibrant, full of life and excitement in her past; but in her present she is depressed and “full of failures and mistakes.” Mrs. Ansley by Mrs. Slades description is beautiful yet dull, in past and present, “Museum specimens of old New York.” Mrs. Slade spends a lot of time contemplating her past and present relations with Mrs. Ansley. She also spends a lot of time being jealous of Mrs. Ansley’s daughter because she is more exciting then her own daughter. We learn that the two women after getting married around the same time also lived in New York across the street from one another. The two women’s husbands also died around the same time. These superficial similarities seem to be all that their friendship is based upon: “The similarity of their lot had again drawn them together.” They had no real conversation flow between them, as you expect old friends to have. There are no specific memories of anything that the two of them did together in the past or present of the entire text. Another good example of how little they knew of each other: “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.” When you look through the wrong end of a telescope you see very little of the big picture.


The author’s focus is on the tone of uneasiness, which finally makes its full-blown entrance as the two women sit in silence on the terrace. Mrs. Slade, the longer she sits, seems to become more and more jealous of her companion. “She thought:” I must make one more effort not to hate her.” Yet in her attempt not to hate her, she cannot help but to hate Mrs. Ansley. She learns that Mrs. Ansley not only was in love with Delphin, but that she slept with him and had his child, Barbara. This proves to be the reason why Mrs. Ansley’s mother rushed her off to Florence to get married quickly to Horace only two months after her affair with Delphin.


The ending was not what I had readily expected, but the tone had been set for it from the lead into the story. This explains the uneasy feelings between the two women and the superficial friendship.
  TamaraJCollins | Mar 10, 2016 |
The lead into the story sets an uneasy tone of distance between the two women. The author begins the story by showing us the two mothers sitting on a terrace of a roman restaurant. The distance is well represented in the text by the careful word choice, for example, in the lead the women “looked first at each other, and then down on the out spread glories of Palatine and the Form.” This looking at each other then looking out at the scene before them is the sort of thing that strangers or acquaintances would do. As the reader gets more into the story, the author again sets the distance between the two women, “perhaps we didn’t know much more about each other.” When Mrs. Ansley says this to Mrs. Slade, it conveys to the reader that Mrs. Ansley is hiding something from her companion. Again, the author shows us space between the two, “for a few moments the two ladies, who had been intimate since childhood, reflected on how little they knew each other.”


As the two women reflect, they both stereotype each other into neat little molds in their heads without ever scratching below the surface. Their friendship exists only on a superficial level. Mrs. Slade as described by Mrs. Ansley was beautiful and vibrant, full of life and excitement in her past; but in her present she is depressed and “full of failures and mistakes.” Mrs. Ansley by Mrs. Slades description is beautiful yet dull, in past and present, “Museum specimens of old New York.” Mrs. Slade spends a lot of time contemplating her past and present relations with Mrs. Ansley. She also spends a lot of time being jealous of Mrs. Ansley’s daughter because she is more exciting then her own daughter. We learn that the two women after getting married around the same time also lived in New York across the street from one another. The two women’s husbands also died around the same time. These superficial similarities seem to be all that their friendship is based upon: “The similarity of their lot had again drawn them together.” They had no real conversation flow between them, as you expect old friends to have. There are no specific memories of anything that the two of them did together in the past or present of the entire text. Another good example of how little they knew of each other: “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.” When you look through the wrong end of a telescope you see very little of the big picture.


The author’s focus is on the tone of uneasiness, which finally makes its full-blown entrance as the two women sit in silence on the terrace. Mrs. Slade, the longer she sits, seems to become more and more jealous of her companion. “She thought:” I must make one more effort not to hate her.” Yet in her attempt not to hate her, she cannot help but to hate Mrs. Ansley. She learns that Mrs. Ansley not only was in love with Delphin, but that she slept with him and had his child, Barbara. This proves to be the reason why Mrs. Ansley’s mother rushed her off to Florence to get married quickly to Horace only two months after her affair with Delphin.


The ending was not what I had readily expected, but the tone had been set for it from the lead into the story. This explains the uneasy feelings between the two women and the superficial friendship.
  TamaraJCollins | Mar 10, 2016 |
This book was a wonderful smorgasbord of delicious tidbits. I'm a fan of Edith Wharton, but I loved this collection of her short stories even more than I do the novels of hers I've read. Every story was a gem, and sparkled and shown in its own way.

My favorites were the title story, Roman Fever, Xingu, and Autre Temps. The thread through several of the stories is societal mores - what are the boundaries, and what happens when those boundaries are crossed.

Xingu was a jab at social and intellectual pretentions, and was almost told like a joke with a punchline. I saw the punchline coming a mile off, but I didn't mind, because it was such a great ride to get there.

Anyone looking for an introduction to Edith Wharton could not do better than this. Neither could anyone looking for an outstanding short story collection.

I loved this, and have added it to my always-growing list of favorites. ( )
  bookwoman247 | Nov 19, 2011 |
Everything about Edith Wharton's work is stately, like an antique fainting couch in a museum, its frame hand-carved, its fabric delicately embroidered. But somehow, the stories are not stifling. Some are sly and humorous, like "Roman Fever" and "Xingu," which both make fools of people who think they know more than they do.

What I really love about Wharton, though—and The Age of Innocence, arguably her most famous work, is a great example of this, too—is the way she lays out her characters' conflicts quite transparently, all so readers can admire how inevitably people misunderstand and unwittingly abuse one another. You want to take her characters by the shoulders and translate for them.

I especially love how she dissects marriage, the roles that couples play for each other and how restrictive they can be. "Souls Belated" is an amazing story about how you build a new relationship out of an affair--if you flouted the convention of marriage once, do you just jump back into it? Do you invite the same people to your dinner parties and pretend things haven't changed? "The Other Two" is about a man trying to feel disaffected about doing business with his current wife's last husband. In a way it's all very old-fashioned, but it's also incredibly relatable.

Wharton also never fails to comment on the way people and habits evolve over time. In "Autres Temps..." ("Other Times...") a woman who left her husband twenty years ago, and regretted the social isolation that followed, overhears two young women talking. Through their conversation she discovers that in the ensuing decades, behavior has become so much freer that leaving one's husband for another man has become the thing to do:

"All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring."

The only legitimate criticism I've ever heard of Edith Wharton is that her work is exclusively rich and white. I once read a Marxist critic who complained that "the worker" wasn't present in Wharton's work, that the servants toiled behind the scenes. This is really not to be denied. (Well, I think one of the ladies in The House of Mirth works in a hat shop, but, you know.) Still, I don't find that a valid reason to discount the work she did. She had a narrow lens, sure. But can't we admire the depth of focus? ( )
2 vote ErinWolverton | Feb 22, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edith Whartonprimary authorall editionscalculated
French, MarilynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wolff, Cynthia GriffinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Edith Wharton has often been seen as a sort of grande dame of American writing, as the wealthy aristocratic lady who supplemented her full social life by dipping into literature, and thus, as a gifted and lucky amateur. (Introduction)
From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval. ('Roman Fever')
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These elegant, finely-wrought stories by one of America's greatest writers are here published in Britain for the first time. Set in Italy, France and America they are powerful portraits of women who live in "the world of propriety" at the turn of the century. They tell of the emotions women feel: in love, in jealousy, when they long for children or seek independence - and when their passions lead them to overstep the bounds laid down by exacting conventions. We see, too, what happens to those strong enough to break the rules, but rarely strong enough to live forever outside the pale of the society that has banished them. First published in America in 1964, this collection of beautifully-crafted stories contains some of Edith Wharton's finest writing.

Contains the following stories:

Roman Fever
Xingu
The Other Two
Souls Belated
The Angel at the Grave
The Last Asset
After Holbein
Autres Temps...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684829908, Paperback)

A side from her Pulitzer Prize-winning talent as a novel writer, Edith Wharton also distinguished herself as a short story writer, publishing more than seventy-two stories in ten volumes during her lifetime. The best of her short fiction is collected here in Roman Fever and Other Stories. From her picture of erotic love and illegitimacy in the title story to her exploration of the aftermath of divorce detailed in "Souls Belated" and "The Last Asset," Wharton shows her usual skill "in dissecting the elements of emotional subtleties, moral ambiguities, and the implications of social restrictions," as Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes in her introduction. Roman Fever and Other Stories is a surprisingly contemporary volume of stories by one of our most enduring writers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:35 -0400)

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Contents:Roman Fever-Xingu-The other two-Souls belated- The Angelat the grave- The last asset- After Holbern- Autres temps

(summary from another edition)

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