In one of her greater works of fiction, Edith Wharton portrays the class from which she herself came, the social elite of New York, to whom name and social status are all-important. Relationships are built upon this upper-class structure as evinced in "Roman Fever." Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade have been lifelong friends only because they have been put together by circumstance: They met each other as young ladies while vacationing with their families in Rome; then, they have lived in New York as neighbors across the street from each other. Now, in Wharton's narrative, they find themselves again in Rome together with their daughters.
And, in this Roman setting, old memories are stirred as the two woman watch as their daughters depart in the company of two young men. With the "spring effulgence of the Roman skies," a rebirth of old feelings surge in Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, who remarks that "...we didn't know much...about each other" when they were young under the Roman moon so long ago. With irony, Wharton writes of the two old friends,
Like many intimate friends, the two ladies had never before had occasion to be silent together, and Mrs. Ansley was slightly embarrassed by what seemed, after so many years, a new stage in their intimacy, and one with which she did not yet know how to deal.
At this point, their intimacy of friendship is much like the false intimacies of their marriages. For, it is later revealed that all the years of her marriage, Mrs. Slade has never known that her husband has had a love affair with Mrs. Ansley, and Mrs. Ansley's husband has never known that Barbara is not really his daughter. Engaged to Alida Slade at the time, Delphin Slade remains true to his social commitments and marries her and lives his life as a corporate lawyer across the street from his former lover. Likewise, Grace Ansley maintains decorum and never mentions anything to him or to Mrs. Slade; she has quickly married after rising from her sickbed back in New York after she has recovered from Roman fever, thereby deluding Mr. Ansley with what he thinks is her pregnancy after their marriage.
All of these intimate secrets are kept for years and years as the Slades and Ansleys have maintained their positions in New York high society. Indeed, their marriages are ones of social position and obligation, much more than love and respect. Even in the revealing conversation between Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade there is a power structure, albeit one that changes.