This month the Librarything Virago group are reading the work of Edith Wharton. I chose Roman Fever a collection of short stories which I have had for some time.
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.