Embodied Vocabularies: Words and Touch in Charlotte Stein’s Sweet Agony

Photo by Anna Zakharova on Unsplash

Hello! It’s been a little while. But I’m back, returning to a short novel I read during the early days of lockdown: Charlotte Stein’s Sweet Agony. Its vivid imagery and the unique way the main characters describe their world have stuck with me in the intervening years. This is a high-heat erotic romance between a reclusive touch-averse hero, and the woman who responds to his advert in the paper for a housekeeper, getting more than she bargained for. It’s also a really vivid exploration of the eroticism of words, both written and spoken, which makes it particularly open to the joys of close reading. Here’s the cover and blurb. 

New job, new boss, and he’s cold, strict, but terribly attractive. Does Molly Parker stay or does she go? Because beneath Cyrian’s chilly front, there may be a heat that’ll burn her up.

Giving in was vicious bliss.

The live-in position is an opportunity for Molly to earn and escape a problematic family. There’s just one drawback. Her employer is the most eccentric, aloof and closed-off man she’s ever encountered. His rules are bizarre and his needs even more so, and caring for his ramshackle Dickensian home is far more than she ever bargained for. Only their increasingly intense conversations stop her heading for the door. Cyrian Harcroft is a man of many mysteries and secrets, and the more she learns the greedier she is for each and every one. Especially when she discovers his greatest fear: any kind of physical contact. Now all she has to do is dig a little deeper, to unearth the passion she knows he can feel…

Cover image and blurb via Goodreads. CWs at Leigh’s review here.

The opening two chapters of this book offer a fresh take on a common trope: opposition that attracts. In the case of our hero and heroine – Cyrian and Molly – it’s not so much a case of having opposite personalities, because they are, in fact, very similar people. Instead, the opposition is technical. Through opposing sets of metaphors and stylistic approaches, Molly and Cyrian come into the reader’s world in very different ways. 

Molly inhabits the text in ways that focus on physicality: not just descriptions of her body (though those are there), but also in her technique of imbuing everything she sees and hears and experiences with a human form. We first get a glimpse of both her vivid imagination, and her tendency to give bodily shape to feelings, moods, and inanimate objects, as she contemplates Cyrian’s house. She describes it as a “bad tooth in a mouth of pristine white ones” and, later, as having windows like “blank, black eyes” that she can “almost feel… pressing into [her] body.” Right off the bat, even though she’s just looking at a rundown house, we get a sense that Molly longs for physical closeness, and seeks it by imagining the embodiment of things around her.

In contrast, for the first two chapters, Cyrian appears only as a voice. At first, the circumstances of his physical absence seem fairly mundane. Molly knocks on his door, and he tries to dismiss her, claiming he no longer seeks responses to his advertisement. Her active imagination and tendency towards chattiness draw him in, however, and they spend the majority of the first chapter bantering from across a closed door. Even after he invites her in, he hides whenever he speaks to her, and it takes several chapters before he allows himself to be seen in her presence. 

In response to Cyrian’s disappearing act, Molly starts off with her usual attempts to accord a bodily form to disembodied things. The metaphors she uses are increasingly vivid, as if she knows she has to work harder to find a body for the sounds made by a man who won’t let his own be shown. She starts with his laugh, and doesn’t seem to struggle to imagine exactly what kind of privileged, assured embodiment Cyrian’s laughter would take: 

You could stick that awful noice in the House of Lords and have it shout at the Prime Minister. It could attend a swanky soiree entirely independent of the person it comes out of, and no one would blink an eye

Things change when he begins to speak however, in a way that allows us to learn a bit more about Molly’s relationship to physicality, and why her role in this book isn’t as simple as a woman who teaches a touch-averse man to inhabit his body more comfortably. 

One thing we learn about Molly early on is that she has lived a fairly isolated life, keeping company with books. As a result, she feels a great deal of comfort with words on the page, but has comparatively little experience with words spoken by a person. This tension destabilizes her tendency to give physical form to things: she has to let go of the kind of words that feel familiar- words manifested physically on pages of books- in order to explore the kinds of words she’s always longed for – spoken words that have no physical form, but rely on a body in proximity to hers in order to be experienced. This paradox of embodiment/disembodiment comes to a head in what is probably my favorite passage of the book, when Molly first hears Cyrian speak: 

He uses the sorts of words I’ve waited all my life to hear spoken aloud- words I barely know how to pronounce because the only time I’ve ever encountered them has been in books. I had no idea that ‘reprobate’ curled that way, or that ‘disillusion’ sounded so small to begin with and then so big at the end. Though, granted, part of that might be down to the way he talks. His tongue practically makes love to each syllable. I feel like his sentence should smoke a cigarette, directly after the full stop. 

This passage pays gorgeous tribute to those of us who learned words by reading them first, long before we ever heard what they sounded like. It also contains a perfect example of Molly’s efforts to grant physicality to everything around her, as she imagines Cyrian’s sentence smoking a cigarette in an embodied, deeply eroticized metaphor. What interests me the most here, though, is not so much the metaphorical specificity as the moments of vagueness in the passage. Molly tells us that reprobate curls “like that” and that disillusion sounds “so small” and then “so big” without indicating the scale or scope of her measurement. I don’t think this is an oversight or a failure of specificity (just a moment ago, Molly was able to tell us Cyrian’s laugh could shout at the PM in the House of Lords). Rather, these words hold a place within the text for sentiments and experiences that inevitably escape the written word. 

Even when Molly gets more specific about Cyrian’s voice, later on, she does so in a way that remains evocative yet – curiously – just a bit inaccessible to the reader. Of his pronunciation of the word “reprobate,” Molly tells Cyrian “You turned the letter R into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. People will probably be playing that letter O at funerals.” This comparison is beautiful, but it’s also noticeably hyperbolic: so much so that it precludes concrete comparison. Even if readers say the word “reprobate” out loud, we are unlikely to actually hear the symphony that Molly hears. This heightened, exaggerated comparison reinforces, as a reading experience, the point that Molly is trying to make about her connection to Cyrian: it’s powerful because it cannot be encoded into the printed texts she’s used to consuming. Cyrian’s words escape familiar physical forms and rely on presence: a body in proximity to another. 

At its most elemental level, this passage offers a new way to think about words and physicality, which in and of itself is valuable (and beautifully rendered in the text). But I also think that there’s important resonance here for Molly and Cyrian’s character arcs in the rest of the book. Sweet Agony is an erotic romance, between a woman who craves the comfort of physical connection and a man who needs to develop trust before he is comfortable being seen or touched. This aspect of the relationship is negotiated through discovery of what kinds of bodily contact they do – and do not – have with each other. On that interpretative level, Cyrian sets most of the boundaries and defines the limits of their physical relationship, while Molly provides the understanding he needs to do so. As such, Cyrian appears to go through the more active change of the two protagonists. We see him move from fearing Molly’s proximity, to feeling safe enough to admit his desire for her touch. While it’s a rewarding and emotionally moving storyline, it also appears a bit unidirectional, if the parameters of “comfort with physical contact” are the primary consideration.  

I think it’s worth watching the text, though, for Molly’s own evolution away from her insecurities. This evolution is perhaps a bit more subtle, because it happens through her relationship to words rather than to touch. Just as Cyrian takes tentative steps to allow closer and closer physical proximity, Molly also becomes more and more comfortable experiencing words in their embodied form: a change which is aided by Cyrian’s careful understanding. In the early days of their relationship, Cyrian communicates with Molly mostly through letters, and readers can see her joy and her comfort in the physical word-forms familiar to her from reading books: the “fancy swirling script” and “beautiful envelopes and little cream cards” with wax and a seal. Slowly but surely, though, she takes steps towards Cyrian as he leaves her books to read, and then reads reads books to her aloud, before finally she is able to hear him voice fantasies that they can share.  All of this renders their relationship a negotiation of partners, and Cyrian does equal narrative work to help Molly move towards the kind of embodied words she was denied all her life.

Taking into account both the physical and the verbal, Sweet Agony much more clearly becomes a book where the characters meet each other halfway, and where words are just as erotic, and just as important, as touch. The early passages around Molly and Cyrian’s meeting draw the readers eye there, and attune their ears, and make the rest of the reading experience all the richer. 

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