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 on each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.
Short Story Sunday has reached 1934 and arrived in Rome, where friends Grace Ansley and Alida Slade are on holiday. On the face of it all is well, but as they chat about their daughters and reminisce about their own youth and a long-ago vacation in the city, it slowly dawns on you that all is not quite as it seems.
Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever is one of the many gems in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. It’s short, slight and perfectly formed, as everything builds oh-so-quietly to the disclosure of secrets as well-kept as the women who have guarded them for so many years.
Wharton quietly creates a picture of wealthy widows who are, on the whole, satisfied with their lives and position in well-to-do American society, and have maintained their girlhood friendship despite their differences. But there are clues that Grace and Alida are not quite as amicable as it seems, for although they have a tendency to feel sorry for each other, each visualises the other ‘through the wrong end of her telescope’. And beneath the calm surface of their lives old passions run deep. Love, jealousy and revenge are a potent mix, as dangerous in middle age as they are in youth – more so perhaps, because the adversaries have learned to mask their emotions while they nurse their hatred.
It is, I suppose, classic Wharton territory, an age-old story of a man and a woman who meet and fall in love, but are destined to part because he has existing commitments to another woman, so a happy outcome is impossible. What comes to light here is a tale of two young girls in love with the same man, and the lengths one went to ensure she kept him. She smiles as she tells her rival about the letter she forged, hoping the other girl would attend a non-existent lovers’ tryst and fall ill from the chill night air, paving the way to her own success and marriage. And she justifies her actions because she was actually engage to the man in question.
All these years the woman had been living on that letter. How she must have have loved him, to treasure the mere memory of its ashes! The letter of the man her friend was engaged to. Wasn’t it she who was the monster?
And you think to yourself, that’s it, that’s the reason for the unease that mars the relationship between two middle-aged women who have known each other all their lives. But Wharton has a trick up her sleeve and the story is not over yet, for the victim of this cruel prank has a trump card to play... And as she discloses her own hidden secret the balance shifts, and you see things from a different perspective, and wonder who the victor in this battle for love really was, and which of them has been the happiest – and who it was who really did capture the heart of the man.