Roman Fever by Edith Wharton
Virago author of the month for March, as voted for by members of the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, is Edith Wharton – an author I’ve read a little of before (most notably “Hudson River Bracketed”, which I absolutely loved). I was determined to join in this month, and have done, finishing the book comfortably before April arrived; but the hardest thing was choosing which one to read as I have a number of her titles lurking on the shelves. In the end, I plumped for “Roman Fever”, a collection of short stories, which was ideal for dipping into during a busy week.
Wharton known for sharply satirical stories of New York society and its mores, although HRB was set in a slightly different milieu. Here, however, we are well into a particular social strata and I can’t say it’s one I’d be particularly keen on belonging to…
The title story is, of course, one of Wharton’s most famous works, well-known for its wonderful last line. I’d read it before, but loved revisiting this tale of two society matrons watching their daughters experience Rome and reminiscing on their own past in the city. There are, of course, skeletons lurking and some wonderful revelations to come.
Pleasingly, the rest of the stories in the collection lived up to the wonderfully high standard of Roman Fever. When I’m talking about shorter works I don’t always mention each one individually, but since every story in the book was a winner I’m making an exception here. Xingu was a wonderfully clever tale, focusing on a group of society ladies who’d formed a club where they explored literature, philosophy and whatever was the current trend, thinking themselves a cut above everyone else. However, the visit of a famous author reveals their falsities and shows an unlikely member to be the sharpest of the lot.
It was Mrs. Ballinger’s boast that she was “abreast with the Thought of the Day,” and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by the books on her table.
The Other Two tackles a couple of Wharton’s regular themes: that of the use of an advantageous marriage as a tool for a woman to climb up in society, and also attitudes towards divorce, here of men. The protagonist is in love with his wife, but cannot shake off the shadow of her previous husbands who are still present in her life. I found this story particularly impressive, with the current husband unable to deal with the fact that his wife had had other relationships, so much so that it ate away at his marriage.
Souls Belated also deals with divorce, although here we have a couple who’ve run away from society and are travelling around Europe; this way, they can avoid bumping into embarrassing acquaintances as their unmarried status makes them outcasts. However, it takes an encounter with another woman in a similar situation to bring about a crisis, and show up the weaknesses in their bravado at attempting to live outside the accepted norm.
A different kind of woman features in Angel at the Grave, a story where the central character has spent her life in the shadow of her grandfather. Once a great figure in letters, he’s become a somewhat forgotten man; and her existence has become reclusive, living in his house and preserving his legacy. It takes a visit from an interested scholar to bring her back to life again, although much of what she could have been has passed her by, with all of her potential being sacrificed to men’s art.
A great man never draws so near his public as when it has become unnecessary to read his books and is still interesting to know what he eats for breakfast.
In The Last Asset we are back in society, in the marriage broking game. A separated high society woman, with plenty of men friends and hangers on, is desperate to arrange an advantageous marrige for her daugher; but the success of this depends upon her proving her extreme respectability. The last asset she can draw on is her estranged husband, should it be possible to track him down and persuade him to take part in this cynical maneouvre…
Mrs. Woolsey Hubbard was an expansive blonde, whose ample but disciplined outline seemed the result of a well-matched struggle between her cook and her corset-maker.
High society and its effects stay in focus in After Holbein, but here we meet a couple of its ageing habituees. Both have frittered their lives away circulating amongst the people to be seen with in places to be seen, until they are left with nothing but the shells of their former lives, the only thing they can still hang on to.
The final story in this excellent colection, Autre Temps, returns to the topic of divorce. The central character, Mrs Lidcote, is returning from Europe to visit her daughter in America. She is another woman who has gone into exile after a divorce, cutting herself off from American society, and her return to her home country is a painful one, necessitated by the mother instinct – as her daughter has now divorced as well. However, the visit is bittersweet as she soon comes to realise that times may have changed for the young, but not for her generation.
Her first distinct feeling was one of irrational resentment. if such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner? Here was she, a woman not yet old, who had paid with the best years of her life for the theft of the happiness that her daughter’s contemporaries were taking as their due.
“Roman Fever” is a really wonderful group of stories, beautifully written and with a memorable set of characters. Often in short story collections there’s the danger of one tale merging into another, but that’s not the case here – each invididual title remained vividly in my mind after I read it and each was equally outstanding. In all of these stories Wharton’s target is Society with a capital S – its expecations, restrictions and demands, the constraints it places on women and its harsh judgement of their behaviour. Her writing can be bitingly critical of many of the female characters in that society, with their ridiculous rules and prejudices, but she never loses sympathy for those women who are suffering from society’s strictures. Wharton’s writing is sharp social satire at its best and she deftly cuts through the hypocrisy of a way of life she obviously knew well and lays bare the effects it has on people’s lives.
So an excellent and very satisfying read for this Virago Author of the Month selection. I found myself musing while I was reading on the way we think about women and their behaviour nowadays. Of course, divorce is no longer frowned on and multiple marriages are common; yet women are still criticised and vilified daily in the press and on social media if they don’t conform to whatever standards that platform is supporting. So although the method of judgement may be different, it seems that women’s lives are still subject to different standards than that of men. Not much changes, does it? 😦