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- The daughter of Charles Burney, a renowned musician


- 18th Century novelist who is said to have influenced Jane Austen


- Attached to the Court of George III for some years. Her diaries are a source of history for this MAD period

- Underwent a mastectomy in 1811 with NO anaesthetic!


Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney’s graphic account of her mastectomy without anaesthetic in 1811, in which the novelist writes to her sister how she “began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony” – has been fully digitised and placed online for the first time by the British Library.

One of more than 300 manuscripts, letters and first editions from the Restoration and 18th century collection digitised for the library’s Discovering Literature venture, Burney’s 12-page letter sees the author of Evelina explain to her sister that she was eventually persuaded to go ahead with the operation by her doctors after her breast cancer diagnosis a year before. Ensuring that her husband and son were absent, she submitted to her surgeons at her home in Paris.

“The evil was so profound, the case so delicate, & the precautions necessary for preventing a return so numerous, that the operation, including the treatment and the dressing, lasted 20 minutes! a time, for sufferings so acute, that was hardly supportable – However, I bore it with all the courage I could exert, & never moved, nor stopt them, nor resisted, nor remonstrated, nor spoke,” writes Burney. “Twice, I believe, I fainted; at least, I have two total chasms in my memory of this transaction, that impede my tying together what passed.”

The letter is just one of several Burney manuscripts digitised by the library, which called it “remarkable as a patient’s record of an operation in the era before anaesthesia, and when surgery was still in its infancy”. Another letter shows how Burney concealed her name and her female identity from the bookseller Thomas Lowndes, as she asks him if he might buy a book “without ever seeing … the Author”; a third sees her explain to a family friend why she turned down a marriage proposal, saying she has “no idea why the single Life may not be happy. Liberty is not without its value – with women as well as with men.”


Burney was 22 when she extolled these views. She would not marry Alexandre D’Arbley until she was 41, having a son with him a year later.

Andrea Varney, national outreach manager at the library, said: “Fanny Burney was famous in her day as a letter writer as well as a novelist, but we tend to know her more as a novelist. These letters give so much more humanity and poignancy to her life as a woman.


The diarist and novelist was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1810 and wrote an account of her ‘terrible operation’ for her sisters.

Fanny Burney is one such woman. Though certainly not the most accomplished novelist in the canon of English literature, she was successful in her day, often writing in her fiction about the difficulties faced by women in getting an education, taking control of their own lives and surviving the social whirl of the nouveau riche. Virginia Woolf called her “the mother of English fiction”.

Her diaries are phenomenal, giving us the most gossipy and often scandalous details of life in literary and intellectual London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was at the centre of a circle that included Dr Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell. Her diaries give a far more intimate portrait of Dr Johnson than do those of the man she referred to rather scathingly as Bozzy.

She also wrote one of the most courageous pieces of work I’ve ever encountered. I read it around the time I, like so many 21 century women, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Burney’s is the first example I’ve come across of a woman writing about so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and a mastectomy. Even today, when I wrote about my experience, it was regarded as a brave thing to do, though we no longer have any squeamish concerns about speaking the words “breast” and “cancer” out loud. It was generally deemed to be helpful, making it clear that there’s no shame attached to the diagnosis and it can be endured and survived.

Burney was there first. She was diagnosed in Paris in 1810, at the age of 58, when surgery was in its infancy and there was no effective anaesthetic. Her story was written to her sister, Esther, and was headed “Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812”. First she explains that in August of 1810 she had a pain and a heaviness in her breast. She was referred to a surgeon and, at first, dismissed the concerns of her family and friends. Her letter is a cautionary tale. “I relate this false confidence, now, as a warning to my dear Esther, my sisters and nieces, should any similar sensations excite similar alarm.”

She goes on to describe every horrific detail of what she endured: “Monsieur Dubois placed me on the Mattrass, and spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent however, and I saw through it that the Bedstead was instantly surrounded by the seven men and my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel – I closed my eyes.”

For now I’ll spare you the remaining horrors and reassure you that the tale has a happy ending. Burney lived for another 29 years after her mastectomy, to the age of almost 88.

I love Burney’s writing, especially her diaries. But most of all I love her for making us aware that, though the diagnosis is awful and the surgery, even with a full anaesthetic, isn’t pleasant, breast cancer can be survived – and a long and productive life lived after it. For this, she deserves her place among the greatest women.

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