"Roman Fever" is a short story by American writer Edith Wharton. It was first published in the magazine Liberty in 1934, and was later included in Wharton's last short-story collection, The World Over.
The protagonists are Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, two middle-aged American women who are visiting Rome with their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade. The elder women grew up in Manhattan, New York, and were friends from childhood. A youthful and romantic rivalry led Mrs. Slade to nurture feelings of jealousy and hatred against Mrs. Ansley.
In the opening pages of the story, the two women compare their daughters and reflect on each other's lives. Eventually, Mrs. Slade reveals a secret about a letter written to Mrs. Ansley on a visit to Rome many years ago. The letter was purportedly from Mrs. Slade's fiancé, Delphin, inviting Mrs. Ansley to a rendezvous at the Colosseum. In fact, Mrs. Slade herself had written the letter, in an attempt to get Mrs. Ansley out of the way of the engagement by disappointing her with Delphin's absence (and, it is implied, to get Mrs. Ansley sick with Roman Fever). Mrs. Ansley is upset at this revelation, but reveals that she was not left alone at the Colosseum—she responded to the letter, and Delphin arrived to meet her. Mrs. Slade eventually states that Mrs. Ansley ought not to feel sorry for her, because "I had [Delphin] for twenty-five years" while Mrs. Ansley had "nothing but a letter he didn't write." Mrs. Ansley responds, in the last sentence of the story, "I had Barbara."
The setting of the story takes place in the afternoon, in the city of Rome. Two wealthy middle-aged widowed women are visiting Rome with their two unmarried daughters. The exotic setting illustrates the power and class from which the women hail, but the Old Rome context, such as the Colosseum, insinuates Roman Empire-style intrigue.
A deeper reading of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” displays a major emphasis on the multiple figurative dimensions of knitting. Wharton establishes this chief theme early on by making sure that the matter of knitting is the first subject to receive any attention: “let’s leave the young things to their knitting.” The first impression of the knitting women is that they are incapable of anything more than the monotonous act of knitting; this sets the stage for the stereotypical mundane middle-aged woman image to be blasted apart.
It is imperative to note that, of the two protagonists, Mrs. Slade does not even knit, while Mrs. Ansley seems devoted to the craft. As the story progresses, one can even make a correlation between Mrs. Ansley’s mental state and the way in which she handles her needles and skeins. When she is nervous, she picks up her project cautiously, as if to draw as little attention as possible. However, something even as simple as the way she stores her work, crimson silk being “run through” by her needles elicits a very provocative response in the reader. The switch between a “half guilty” extraction of her work to the subtle provocation of the passionate color and style of materials chosen changes the element of knitting from one of complacency to one of increasing complexity.
Mrs. Ansley’s use of knitting in an attempt to blaze a path of forgetting, as she neither wishes to live in the past or the present, introduces an element of dramatic irony in Wharton’s work. This mix is shown in the cautious drawing out of her knitting, indicating feelings of guilt at the mention of the love triangle conversation that Mrs. Slade begins. Thus, her knitting serves two purposes: her knitting allows Mrs. Ansley to refrain from fidgeting and it also serves as an evasion tactic for Mrs. Ansley to avoid uncomfortable conversation. In that respect, her knitting can seem as though it is a psychological weapon wielded against the onslaught of Mrs. Slade’s tongue. It is easy to discern that knitting may be required to dispel the “cold” and “damp” air that has been flowing freely between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.
Alida Slade: Middle-aged widow of Delphin Slade, a corporation lawyer. While she is dining in Rome with her old friend, Grace Ansley, the narrator reveals that she really despises Grace, who once was intimate with Delphin before he married Alida. Delphin Slade: Late husband of Alida. Grace Ansley: Middle-aged widow of well-to-do Horace Ansley. When Alida Slade reveals her long-simmering enmity for Grace, the latter counters with a shocking revelation. Horace Ansley: Late husband of Grace. Barbara Ansley: Vivacious daughter of Grace Ansley. Alida Slade resents her because of her obvious superiority to her own daughter. The last sentence in the story reveals that Barbara is really the Daughter of Delphin. Jenny Slade: Daughter of Alida Slade. She is beautiful but lacks the charisma and charm of Barbara Ansley. Headwaiter: Supervising waiter at the terrace restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and other ancient ruins. After receiving a gratuity from Alida Slade, he invites Alida and Grace to remain at the restaurant to enjoy the view. Son of Alida Slade: Child who "inherited his father's gifts," according to Alida, but died while still a boy. Harriet: Deceased great-aunt of Grace. According to a story handed down, Harriet and her sister loved the same man. To get rid of her sister, Harriet supposedly tricked her into exposing herself to Roman fever. She later died of the disease.
Power struggle for those in the upper classes: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley vie for engagement to Mr. Slade. The eventual Mrs. Slade tries to remove Mrs. Ansley from the picture with a false letter inviting the latter to a night rendezvous. While the plan backfires for Mrs. Slade because her eventual husband actually meets with Mrs. Ansley, Mrs. Slade still marries her beau, but it seems the soon-to-be Mrs. Ansley actually bears Mr. Slade's daughter, Barbara.
Betrayal and deception: The two chief characters use subterfuge and machination in order to improve their engagement prospects as youths.
Grudges: And in their middle age, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley introduce decades-old surprises, unexpected in characters so similar in proximity, age, and class.
Representation of female relationships
Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade have a bittersweet relationship filled with envy, betrayal, and competition. They compare their lifelong battle for one man, Delphin Slade, and now quarrel regarding who has the more impressive daughter, both of whom, ironically, share the same father.
Although critics called special attention to "Roman Fever" immediately after The World Over was published, the story has received comparatively little critical attention since.
Hugh Leonard's one act adaptation of "Roman Fever" was first staged in Dublin in 1983. Robert Ward's opera Roman Fever which premiered in 1993 at Duke University is based on this work. Hungarian composer Gyula Fekete's opera Roman Fever premiered in 1996 at Budapest's Merlin Theatre. In September 1964, KPFA broadcast a radio adaptation of Roman Fever, with Pat Franklin and Shirley Medina, adapted and directed by Erik Bauersfeld, and technical production by John Whiting.
- "Roman Fever by Edith Wharton". Literature Study Guides. eNotes.com, Inc. Retrieved 2007-11-18.
- Selina, Jamil S. (2007). "Wharton's "Roman Fever"". Explicator 65 (2): 99–101.
- "Irish Playography entry for Roman Fever by Hugh Leonard". Retrieved 7 April 2013.
- Fogel, Henry (24 June 2008). "Donald Portnoy: WARD Roman Fever on ARSIS". Fanfare Magazine. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
- Erik Bauersfeld (Director) (1964). Roman Fever (MP3) (radio broadcast). Berkeley: KPFA. Retrieved July 27, 2014.