Posted on: July 8, 2014

Frances (Fanny) Burney was an 18th century novelist and diarist, who for a while was at the centre of British royal life, and who also lived for a decade in Napoleonic France. She was a truly remarkable woman, who had the courage to undergo an early mastectomy, without benefit of any kind of anaesthetic!

She was born in 1752, one of six children. Although her father was an academic, Fanny was self-educated. As a child she began keeping a journal, which she was to keep writing for the rest of her long life. At the age of 34 she was offered the role of Second Keeper Of The Robes in the household of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Fanny was reluctant to take the offer, as it would mean being separated from her family, but as a spinster of 34 (she had turned down one marriage proposal because it was thought her suitor wasn’t wealthy enough), she felt she had no option but to accept.

Fanny continued to keep her diary during her years at the royal court, and she is often quoted in little snippets from the home life of George and Charlotte. For instance, Fanny was there in the summer of 1789 when King George single-handedly invented the English seaside holiday. The royal family had decamped to Weymouth in Dorset, as part of a cure for poor old George’s mental illness (possibly thought to be porphyria).

On 7 July Fanny recorded the King taking a dip in the sea for the first time. “A machine follows the royal one into the sea, filled with fiddlers, who play God Save The King, as His Majesty takes the plunge”. Apparently Queen Charlotte wasn’t quite so enamoured of this new royal past-time, but no matter. The English love-affair with the seaside had begun, and has endured ever since. George’s son, later to be King George IV, was to set up his own summer retreat at a little fishing-village along the coast called Brighthelmstone, soon to be shortened to Brighton. Queen Victoria was also known to be fond of sea-bathing near her own retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.

Meanwhile, over in France, during this momentous summer, the French were gearing up for revolution. On the day the Bastille fell, on 14 July, King George was enjoying a boat trip round Portland. It is things like this that have ensured the longevity of the British royal family. Whilst Louis and Marie Antoinette were tucked up in their splendid palace at Versailles, oblivious to the resentment and bitter hatred being directed at them from beyond the palace walls, King George was taking a dip in the sea off Weymouth, whilst the National Anthem was scratched out on fiddles.

Fanny sympathised with the causes of the French revolution, and initially admired the ideals of social equality. She became friends with a circle of French aristocrats who had fled to England, and became close to General Alexandre d’Arbray, an army officer, who took the centrist line between royalist and revolutionary. The General taught her French, and Fanny wrote pamphlets urging for funds for the revolutionary cause, but arguing for balance and compassion. Sadly, little of either was to be found in the bloodstained carnage which ensued.

The General and Fanny wed, and had a son, also called Alexandre. In 1802 the General was called back to France to serve under Napoleon, and Fanny and her little boy came with him. The original idea was that they were to spend only a year in France, but they ended up staying there for ten.

In 1810 Fanny developed pains in her breast. Her husband suspected breast cancer, and took Fanny back to England, where she could use her royal connections to get access to the best surgeons and doctors. On 30 September 1811 an operation took place which makes my skin tingle to read about. Fanny was operated on by 7 surgeons, all dressed in black, and described by Wikipedia as being like “a battlefield operation”.

Fanny was led to a bed, and placed on it. A thin piece of material was placed over her face, but she could still see through it. When she saw the “glitter of polished steel” though, she closed her eyes, but it couldn’t spare her the intense pain which followed next. “Yet, when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins, arteries, flesh, nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries”. Fanny understandably let out a scream which was to last the entire time of the cutting. “Oh heaven! I then felt the knife rackling against the breast bone, scraping it”.

The operation lasted 20 minutes. At the end of it Fanny was carried, exhausted and bereft of colour, back to her bed. She caught a glimpse of one of the surgeon’s as she was led away. “Good Dr Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, its expression depicting grief, apprehension, and almost horror”. All through her operation, Fanny maintained sympathy for her doctors, recognising that they were going through a tremendous ordeal too.

Every time I read about this operation, I feel like I need a stiff drink afterwards. What an incredible woman! Fanny detailed the operation in a letter to her sister, Esther, and it is now regarded as an invaluable description of an early operation, in the days before anaesthetics. Fanny was to survive her ordeal by many years. She out-lived her husband, and lived to the ripe old age of 88. She continued to write, and it is as a novelist, playwright and diarist that she is most well-known today.

All too often these days I read people moaning about modern science. Some even have the bare-faced arrogance to suggest that science has never achieved anything (presumably we should go back to blood-letting by leaches, and relying on the local Wise Woman for help). Every time I come across somebody like that I think of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy.



© Sarah Hapgood and, 2011-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Hapgood and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sarah’s fiction on Kindle

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
Transylvanian Sky and other stories

A second collection of my short stories, Transylvanian Sky and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.99. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
B-Road Incident and other stories

A collection of 21 of my short stories, B-Road Incident and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.15. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Sarah’s tweets

%d bloggers like this: