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"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.
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.
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. But the surprise revealed by Grace in the last line is teasing.
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.