Story Playlist 10: Roman Fever

Edith Wharton: “Roman Fever” (1934) Among the best tricks employed by masterful short story authors is a last line that completely changes our view of everything that came before it. When the last line is a reversal that turns the tables on the dominant character, there can be a special tang, a final kick.

“Roman Fever” introduces us to a pair of matronly Society women, Mrs. Delphin Slade and Mrs. Horace Ansley. Both are widows who have known one another since they were girls; in time, it becomes clear that Mrs. Slade—Alida—made the better match than did Grace Ansley, as Delphin Slade was a very prominent figure in his time. Each woman has a marriageable daughter they have traveled with to Rome. We meet them as the girls—Babs Ansley and Jenny Slade—go off on an outing with eligible bachelors, leaving the mothers to share the late afternoon sun at a restaurant overlooking the Colosseum. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have lived in much the same orbit, but were friendly when they were about their daughters’ ages, decades ago, on a holiday in Rome.

Surprised to encounter each other after so much time, and in such similar circumstances, they seem to share companionable silence, thinking fondly of the same old times. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Mrs. Slade and the reader is lulled into thinking that this is a character study about the slightly condescending matron, who seems to have a chip on her shoulder regarding the sweeter, quieter Mrs. Ansley, who sits calmly knitting. The resentment seems to stem from the dynamic between the older women and their respective daughters, based on a maternal rivalry, perhaps. Mrs. Slade seems to admire Babs Ansley as the more “brilliant” daughter, as compared to her own merely “perfect” daughter. But there’s something more hinted at, for Mrs. Slade seems somehow affronted by Mrs. Ansley, and Mrs. Ansley harbors a silent superiority toward Mrs. Slade.

The slow build of the story derives from the manner by which Mrs. Slade eventually brings up what is bothering her. She broaches the topic by reminiscing about how their grandmothers warned their mothers of the dangers of visiting the Forum and Colosseum basin at night for fear of contracting “Roman fever.” When Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley were girls, the warnings were less effective—though the drop in temperature in the area was still a concern—and young couples would sneak into the closed ruins as a place for illicit trysts, perhaps made more exciting by the risks. Mrs. Ansley, we learn, went out after hours on that fateful trip in the women's youth, contracted pneumonia, and was bedridden for months.

The best short stories urge us on by their pace, letting us absorb details and making us want to see how they add up. Wharton’s story, after a leisurely opening, moves quickly through three revelations, each more surprising and more revealing about the relationship between these two women.

(Stop here and read “Roman Fever,” if you haven't read it, before resuming!)

First, Mrs. Slade reveals the great secret she has been harboring all these years. She knows why Grace went out at night to the Colosseum. Mrs. Slade quotes, verbatim, a letter that Ansley received that night in Rome from Alida’s fiancé Delphin Slade, asking Grace—addressed as “my one darling”—to meet him in the Colosseum after closing. Grace had immediately burned the note, and is genuinely shocked that Alida knows its contents. Mrs. Slade reveals that she wrote the note. She had hoped that a frustrated rendezvous would keep Grace away from her betrothed, about whom she was clearly uncertain. It was generally known that Grace suffered from throat problems and we may infer a certain touch of Poe in a jealous woman sending her rival out into the damp and cold of the Colosseum on a fool’s errand.

Grace went to the Colosseum, became ill, and was put out of commission for a time, then swiftly married Horace. Alida married Delphin, as intended. The revelation, ostensibly an apology for deceiving Grace to the detriment of her health, lets us feel that Mrs. Slade has the upper-hand. She was victorious then, and she has now destroyed Mrs. Ansley's treasured memory of the letter. The one detail, we may suppose, that gave Grace her sense of superiority was her knowing something about Delphin that Alida did not.

Had “Roman Fever” ended here, it would be a satisfying short story, a tale of intrigue and confession. But Wharton has more in store. As we take in Mrs. Slade’s words, demure Mrs. Ansley turns the tables. She did, indeed, go to the Colosseum that night, as the letter indicated, but Delphin was there to meet her! She had replied to the letter, which Alida had never considered, and so Delphin met Grace for an illicit evening in the ruins—all along, Grace Ansley has known something Alida Slade did not suspect.

Mrs. Slade, one-upped beyond belief, quickly tries to save face: Mrs. Ansley had only the letter (and possibly the rendezvous, if her story is to be believed); Mrs. Slade married Delphin and had him for life. Mrs. Ansley concedes that, but replies, “I had Barbara.”

With her killer last line, Wharton flashes the ultimate revelation: that Babs Ansley is actually the daughter of Slade’s husband! Grace was impregnated that night in the Colosseum, and her “pnuemonia” and hasty marriage were subterfuges to mask that fact. Mrs. Ansley leaves the stage victorious, and Mrs. Slade has been cut down to size, leaving us to think about how superior Babs Ansley is to Jenny Slade, how “brilliant.” Wharton’s subtlety knows no bounds, as she makes the final line do all its work through implication. Readers who missed that "Babs" is short for Barbara may find the line quizzical and need to return to the opening where the latter name appears early when Mrs. Ansley murmurs an unheard rebuke at her daughter. In any case, “I had Barbara” does all it needs to when spoken in this context to Mrs. Slade, and the attentive reader knows exactly how the latter must take it.

“Dialogue,” Elizabeth Bowen once said, “is what characters do to each other.” Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” is a sterling illustration of that idea.