Frances Burney

I’m nearing the end of Frances Burney’s Letters and Journals, about 100 pages from the end of a 560-page collection. As I think back over the book, I’m realizing that a few sections really stand out and the other parts, while I might not remember them in detail, give me a more general feeling for what Burney’s life was like. The parts that stand out are the publication of Evelina and Burney’s acute embarrassment any time anybody mentioned the novel — and they mentioned it a lot because it was hugely successful, the sections where Burney meets a lot of famous people (Johnson, Reynolds, Burke, for example), the period she was working at court and got to know the king and queen, and, just recently, her account of her mastectomy.

This last is truly horrifying. She got breast cancer at the age of 58 while she was living in Paris with her French husband. She saw numerous doctors, some of whom wanted to operate and others who did not. About a year after she first noticed the lump in her breast, they decided to operate. She tells the story over 10 pages or so, and it’s one of uncertainty and agony. The doctors — for some reason — decided that they wouldn’t tell her the date of the operation but would give her only two hours notice. And then they wait for three weeks until they actually follow through, so she spends three weeks wondering when it will happen.

And, of course, there’s no anesthesia at this time. Burney didn’t mention any kind of pain-killer whatsoever, and it seems she was conscious through the entire operation. She describes it with a lot of raw detail; I won’t quote here because it’s too awful, but she doesn’t spare the reader at all. She describes being in tremendous pain, but also being embarrassed when seven doctors enter the room to perform and observe the operation. She does her best to keep her maid and nurses by her side to have some feminine comfort, but all but one dash off in fear. She describes climbing up into her bed surrounded by all the doctors — how different from a modern operating scene! — who place a hankerchief over her face, although it does little good as she can see through it. When she sees the “glitter of polished steel,” she shuts her eyes.

I’ve never read anything like this before, and I wonder at Burney’s motivations for telling it in such detail. She tells the story in a letter to her sister, and she frames the story with a warning to women to pay attention to the signs of cancer. It must be that the experience was so profound she felt she needed to record it, and it’s probably also the novelist in her who has turned many episodes of her life into set-pieces in the letters and journals. And I would think describing the details would help her get some kind of control over or distance from the experience.

I’ve always been grateful for modern medicine, but I feel this even more strongly now.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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