The Sexual Politics of Jane Eyre

Representations of Fear and the Construction of Text in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

​Ann Erskine

Available February 2021

ISBN 9781913087258  HB   £85.00

ISBN 9781913087265  eB   £49.99

229 x 152mm.  188 pp. 7 illustrations.

​Writers and Their Contexts series  no. 6

Edward Everett Root Publishers Co. Ltd.

About this book

Very few new books have the power to change our view of a great classic like Jane Eyre. But this is such a book. It offers a genuinely new way of reading the novel.

It offers a radical rethinking that differs from previous explorations of Jane Eyre from both feminist and post-colonial positions.

Dr. Erskine is well acquainted with a wide range of relevant literary criticism and she challenges in particular the dominant feminist argument that Jane is primarily motivated by rage. She provides a close reading of Jane Eyre from a new perspective, namely that Jane is from the beginning motivated by fear – and specifically by fear of sexual subjugation. 

Her analysis of the text clearly supports her proposition that the child Jane’s occasional outbursts of anger and retaliation are a last resort when she is goaded beyond endurance, but that her primary reaction to the world is one of fear. This is a direct challenge to what has become a feminist orthodoxy in literary criticism, namely that Jane is intrinsically a rebellious character primarily motivated by rage. This reading is much better supported by the text than the more dominant reading of Jane as rebellious from the start. Dr. Erskine argues that Jane should be seen as a timid, fearful child who, as a mature woman, overcomes fear and rebels against oppressive societal structures. This contrasts with prevailing feminist depictions of Jane Eyre as a feisty, rebellious child who, as an adult, subsides into a patriarchal marriage. This alternative perspective provides a reading of the novel’s conclusion as more aesthetically satisfactory and unified than many previous scholars have proposed.  
Dr. Erskine supports her arguments by close and pertinent quotation from the text, and by details of the novel’s cultural and historical context which, again, are not often remarked on. In particular she emphasizes that Jane’s references to ‘slavery’ to express the subjugation she feels in relation to John Reed (and later to Mr. Rochester), are not drawn from African/Caribbean slavery but from widely publicized stories of ‘white slavery’ perpetrated by Ottoman privateers in repeated raids during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even along the coast of the British Isles. Tellingly, these attacks were particularly frequent in Cornwall, the home of Charlotte Bronte’s mother and aunt, who would be familiar with the stories of local terror and would almost certainly have passed these on to their children. The Turkish theme of sexual threat is maintained in Jane Eyre by repeated scenes of ‘Turquerie’ or harem-like opulence in relation to Mr Rochester.

The author’s background in clinical psychology makes her very well placed to analyse emotional motivations and particularly those evoked by emotional trauma such as terror.

Chapter One: Fight or Flight
Chapter Two: In the Boudoir Turc
Chapter Three: A Miserable Poltroon
Chapter Four: Turquerie
Chapter Five: The Sultan
Chapter Six: Bertha’s Three Stories
Chapter Seven: Bertha – The Colonial Subject
Chapter Eight: Bertha – The Madwoman
Chapter Nine: Bertha – The Hyena
Chapter Ten: Overcoming
Chapter Eleven: Returning



About the author

The author has worked as a clinical psychologist. She took first class honours in Psychology, a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology, and most recently a PhD. in English Literature.  She worked for many years as a counsellor and therapist, specialising on adult trauma (including survivors of sexual assault and combat veterans). After retiring from her career as a psychologist she combined her studies in literature with her training and experience in psychology. This background has given her the ability to see beyond the approaches many scholars have taken in regard to Jane Eyre, providing her with a unique insight into the significance of fear in Bronte’s narrative and the ways she uses manifestations of fear in constructing the text.


“Ann Erskine has achieved something extraordinary - a genuinely new way of reading a well-loved classic. At least since The Madwoman in the Attic argued that Bertha Mason is Jane’s enraged alter ego, it has become orthodox to see Jane as primarily a rebellious character. Erskine, by contrast, drawing on a background in clinical psychology, demonstrates that Jane is from the beginning motivated by fear – and specifically by fear of sexual subjugation.

I thought I knew this novel well, but I was startled to realise that Erskine’s reading is much better supported by the text than the more dominant view. She validates her thesis not only by close and pertinent quotation from the text, however, but also by little-known details of the novel’s cultural and historical context.

In particular she emphasizes that Jane’s references to ‘slavery’, especially in her reactions to Mr Rochester, are not drawn from Caribbean sources but from stories of the ‘white slavery’ perpetrated by Ottoman privateers, who terrorized even the coast of the British Isles and particularly Cornwall, the home of Charlotte Bronte’s mother and aunt, during their lifetime.  

In short, this book offers an original, intelligent and well-researched argument which convincingly challenges an existing orthodoxy.”

- Prof. Patsy Stoneman