You wouldn't normally associate E. L. Doctorow's classic novel Ragtime (profusely adapted for both stage and screen) with eroticism. Would you? I don't know. Maybe. When I first read it, whenever that was (and you can tell something by the way the pages of my paperback copy have turned not yellow, but brown), a certain passage stuck in my head. So did a few others, and all of them had to do with sex.
Not that Doctorow is a pornographer or even an especially sensual writer, though he does have his moments. His strength is describing what's right in front of him, and I seldom feel his characters' hearts beating. But once in a while. . .
Doctorow is a notorious name-dropper in this thing and keeps on referring to the movers and shakers of the day, people like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, and - most notably - two women, famous or even infamous for very different reasons. I don't know much about Emma Goldman except that she was an anarchist and a rabble-rouser, and had a face like a rail fence. Evelyn Nesbit was considered a scarlet woman and spent her evenings sitting around on a velvet swing while men looked her up, or is it the other way around?
I won't even try to navigate the ambitions of this book, because they are just so extreme. A novel is always a reduction of reality, but reducing this gigantic sprawl of history to any sort of pages is pretty remarkable, that is, without freeze-drying and removing all the juices in the process.
This passage has juices. It's just the kind of scene that my mind wanders to when. . . oh hell, who has sexual fantasies at my age anyway? Life is full of surprises. I thought things would sort of dry up at menopause, but instead, wow, wowsa, wowsy, wow-wow-wow-wow!
So I still enjoy imagining scenes, toying with characters, even writing the stuff myself (see: The Glass Character, which has its share of erotic moments while Muriel Ashford hopelessly throbs for her dear, distant, impossible amour). The "explosive" conclusion of this scene is such a surprise that it initially kind of shocked me. I know men of that era were supposed to be almost as chaste as women, but I don't imagine too many of them could manage it.
I love costume dramas, the ones that go on in my head I mean, and I love Victorian and Edwardian scenes because the women's gowns are just ravishing, making practically anyone look graceful and beautiful, and are at the same time mortal prisons. It appeals to my innate sense of masochism. But wouldn't all those layers be perversely exciting? A man might have to take a course of study to undress his wife on his wedding night (and by the way, have you ever thought of this? In the past, a good many people, both men and women, knew nothing at all about the sex act when they married. And yet, they had these huge families. They must've figured it out, but how good was it? I mean, for her? Oh Jesus, just read the excerpt!)
Though it's not likely they ever met, Doctorow has fun with an erotically-charged encounter between Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit. Writers can move the chess-pieces around any way they want, and manipulate their women figures like so many helpless dolls. One wonders if the author reacted anything like Mother's Younger Brother.