Just one more story I want to cover, and that’s probably Wharton’s most famous short story, “Roman Fever”. This was first published in Liberty for November 10, 1934. As such it comes very late in Wharton’s career: she died in 1937, and the common view is that her last major novel, if probably her best, was The Age of Innocence, from 1921. She was still a prolific writer, at all lengths, however, and “Roman Fever” is evidence that she could still do remarkable work in her 70s. It is sometimes dismissed as an effective but fairly trivial story, and it is true that it turns on a killer last line, and that the concerns of the story, at a first glance, aren’t earth-shaking – the rivalry between two wealthy widows, both of whom will still be comfortably situated no matter the events of the story, may seem a minor thing. And so it is, perhaps, but that’s missing the point. It’s also true that the story is shortish for Wharton – most of her major short stories are at least 7000 words, often 10000 or more, and “Roman Fever” is not quite 5000 words long. Again, not important.
The story is set in Rome, presumably about at the time of writing. (Wharton wrote it in 1934, after a trip to Rome.) Alida Slade and Grace Ansley are the main characters, two women who have know each other for a very long time, who were neighbors in New York, and who lost their husbands within months of each other not too long before. They are visiting Europe with their daughters, each of whom is in her early 20s. The daughters go running off together at the start, leaving “the young things” (their mocking term for their mothers) to “their knitting”.
Slowly we learn a little more about the women, mostly through the lens of Mrs. Slade’s thoughts. It seems that Mrs. Slade made the more brilliant marriage, to a dashing lawyer. And Mrs. Slade fancies herself to have been an important ally of her husband, especially in social circles. Mrs. Ansley and her husband are both regarded as sort of colorless, though she acknowledges that Grace was a beauty when young. And, she has to acknowledge, much as she loves her daughter, Barbara Ansley is the more impressive figure …
Eventually the conversation turns to their last mutual visit to Rome, when both were unmarried, though Alida and Delphin Slade were courting. It seems that Delphin also showed some partiality to Grace, enough so that Alida became terribly jealous. As all this goes one we realize that Alida still harbors dislike for Grace Ansley (enough so that we must color her evaluations of Grace accordingly). And then Alida reveals to Grace that, in fact, a certain letter that Grace had received from Delphin on that last trip to Rome had in fact been written by Alida – she pretended that Delphin was inviting her (Grace) to a tryst on a chilly night at the Colisseum. Alida hoped that Grace would contract “Roman fever” (that is, malaria), which would take her out of the running for Delphin – or perhaps that her reputation would be ruined. And, in fact, Alida did take ill and was rushed away … (I should add that this plot point is to some extent a deliberate allusion to major events in Daisy Miller, by Wharton’s close friend Henry James.)
Alida has her own secrets to reveal, of course – the most devastating given in the famous last line, which I’ll leave to the reader to learn.
Like many stories with great last lines, there is a tendency to regard this as a stunt, or something trivial, but I don’t think that’s fair in the case of “Roman Fever”. The story is exquisitely constructed, and beautifully written, and rereading it after learning the trick ending opens it up immensely. Minor details take on greater significance, and subtle early lines now seem stunning. Much is made in the critical literature, for instance, of the fact that only Grace Ansley knits … Much is made, and should be made, of the way the story looks at the relationships of women. Or of the implications it makes about the changes in social mores in the preceding decades, and how they affect women. Even, perhaps, of the changes in medical care. It’s not my favorite Wharton story (that would probably be “Autres Temps …”), but it’s close, and I think it’s a great story, and a great introduction to Wharton.
So, that’s the end of my brief survey of my favorite stories from R. W. B. Lewis’ selection of his favorites of her corpus. I’ve skipped a couple more stories I like quite a lot, particularly “Kerfol”, another ghost story, in this case about ghost dogs, haunting an old French house that had been the site of a strange death centuries earlier; and “After Holbein”, not quite a ghost story but almost, about two elderly people, a man and a woman, reenacting their social roles as they seem at the cusp of death. Lewis misses the boat a couple of times as well, particularly in choosing “All Souls”, one of Wharton’s very last stories, and another supernatural story, but a great disappointment to me, in the thudding and silly revelation as to what was “haunting” a wealthy woman in her remote country house.