Friday 29 May 2015

Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Sadly life has got in the way of my good intentions for Wharton Review month this year.

The only Edith Wharton books that I have completed this month are short story collections...and Roman Fever was one I started last year!!

Oh well, something is better than nothing....

I do enjoy a good short story and Wharton can certainly write some beauties. (Although I have to confess that I don't believe that she writes them as well as William Trevor or Alice Munro.)

Throughout Roman Fever it was curious to see hints and shadows of Wharton's fuller stories and characters appear in these shorter versions of her well-known and loved style.

There was the tantalising familiarity of themes - the constrictions of New York society, the American abroad, unhappy marriages, the fading glory of fin de siecle New York and hidden, unspoken desires.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff summed this aspect up in her introduction far more succinctly that I did:

All bear her unique stamp - a scrupulous attention to the interplay between individual characters and the society that works to shape and constrain it.

One of Wharton's devices is to make her characters struggle to understand each other, even as she gives us enough information to see things clearly. Compromise and ambiguous endings are also a feature of Wharton's stories.

All of these features are on display in this short story collection.

My reviews of the first few short stories in Roman Fever are here and here.

Souls Belated tells the familiar tale of unhappy marriages and the consequences of flouting society's rules as Lydia and Gannett struggle to find a place that will accept their love. The tension and compromises gradually strain their original fervour:
We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret longing to work our way back gradually - oh, very gradually - into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated?
The Angel at the Grave is a poignant tale of memory and the passing of time.
Paulina devotes her whole life to sustaining the memory of her famous grandfather. Duty and obligation are writ large as her life is subsumed by her quest to give her grandfather's life a higher purpose and meaning, and therefore, her own.

The Last Asset reminded me a little of The Reef. Maybe it was the Parisian setting? Or the unlikeable characters?
Certainly Mrs Newell is a very unpleasant person - on the threshold of losing her deeply treasured spot in society thanks to her disagreeable behaviours and actions of old. She sees her daughter's sweet romance with a young French man of family as the perfect opportunity for her to manouever herself back into society's good books.

After Holbein is a sad tale of aging, memory loss, faded glory, self-deception and the relentless forward march of society.

Autres Temps...finishes off this collection back where we started with unhappy marriages, misunderstandings and strict societal mores.
Mrs Lidcott feels the full force of New York society disapproval when she divorces her first husband to run off with her new lover. The strain of being shunned eventually has a detrimental effect on her new relationship. Years later when her daughter announces that she too is newly divorced and remarried, sad memories and anxieties return. But New York society has changed during the intervening years, but has Mrs Lidcott?
The success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.
Overall, Roman Fever provides a lovely snapshot of the Wharton oeuvre.

How did you fare this month?

I love seeing all the Wharton love out there - thank you for taking the time to write reviews & leave comments on each others posts.

Hopefully I will squeeze in one more post this weekend about my attempts to read Wharton's non-fiction.

But for now, goodnight and happy reading!


  1. I was just happy to finish one Wharton and finish it early. I started her short stories compilation Tales of Men & Ghosts last year and never did finish it, so I completely understand your detour. It was not at all what I expected so it kind of threw me off. I need to get back to it but coming at it from a different angle.

    Hey, thanks for hosting again this year, Brona. I'm so glad that I was finally able to participate!

    1. Delighted to have your company this year. I'm thinking that I might move Wharton Review month to January next year (which is Edith's birth month) and also (usually) a less busy month for me than May.

      I feel like I was a terrible host this month...I had all these plans that came to nought....

      I haven't tried any of Wharton's ghost stories - so thanks for the heads up about them being quite different. Maybe that was my problem with her non-fiction....I was expecting a similar style and emotional tenor as her novels and of course, they are very different....

    2. Don't expect them to be ghost stories. That's what threw me. I was reading them in October and expecting them to be scary but they were just rather odd. Not bad, just different. I think I only got through the first two or three so perhaps I only read the "men" stories and hadn't got to the "ghost" ones yet. I'll let you know further if I read it before you! :-)


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