The Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, with all its opulence, propriety, and extravagant wealth set against deep poverty and an immutable class system, comes to life in the writing of Edith Wharton. Novels such as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920) delineate the manners, mores, and fashions of the privileged of old New York in poignant detail.
Because her powers of observation were so keen, Wharton often notes that her less flamboyant women characters engaged in needlecrafts, as many women of those times would. Adeline Archer and her tepid daughter Janey, living at the pinnacle of society in The Age of Innocence, are never without their embroidery projects for an evening at home. Silk fire screens and dainty doilies, no doubt. It’s what women of a certain class did. Women’s publications and pattern books from the time (about 1870–1900) abound in instructions for all kinds of ornate dispensable objects. Meanwhile, women of the servant class would have been knitting practical stockings, knee warmers, mittens, washcloths, and such.
One of Wharton’s 85 short stories, “Roman Fever,” threads a strong knitting theme through a tale of two women of privilege and their devastating confrontation in Rome. The meeting takes place on a plaza above the Seven Hills, in all their splendor, at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. The women are each recently widowed and are there to chaperone their young daughters, but their conversation harks back to a time at the turn of the century when they were in Rome as young unmarried women, both in love with the same man.