Thank God for Anaesthesia

Fanny Burney, diarist, letter-writer and novelist, was one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers.  She was the second daughter of the musician and writer, Charles Burney.  She was born in 1752, and spent her early years in Norfolk, but the family moved to London in 1770.

In 1778, Fanny published her first novel, Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, and other novels followed.  She became a member of the ‘Blue Stocking Club’.  In 1786 she became ‘second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte’, with a salary of £200 per year, 2 servants and an apartment in Windsor Castle.  Her social-climbing father loved her appointment, but Fanny apparently hated it, especially from 1788, when George III began to show signs of madness.  She retired from the court on half-pay in 1791.

Frances Burney's (1752–1840) last novel before...

Frances Burney (1752–1840)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile the French Revolution had broken out.  During a break in Surrey the next year, Fanny met a group of émigrés who had settled nearby, including Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, the former adjutant to the marquis de Lafayette.

Despite her father’s disapproval, they married, in the Church of England on 28 July 1793, and a second time, 2 days later, by Roman Catholic rites.  It was a happy marriage, although they had nothing to live on except Fanny’s £100 pension and the profits of her writing.  The following year, at the age of 42, Fanny bore a son, Alexandre.

In 1802, the Peace of Amiens ended Britain’s long war with France – temporarily as it turned out.  D’Arblay had returned to France in 1801 to try to retrieve his property, and now Fanny and their son joined him in Paris.  When war broke out again, the family was trapped, and Fanny didn’t return to England until 1812.

In September 1811, Fanny D’Arblay was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she would need a mastectomy.  There was no anesthesia and precious little hygiene.  Fanny later described her operation to her sister, Esther:

I strolled to the Salon – I saw it fitted with preparations, & I recoiled – But I soon returned; to what effect disguise from myself what I must so soon know? – yet the sight of the immense quantity of bandages, compresses, sponges, Lint – made me a little sick…

At 3pm, Dr Moreau arrived with his team of 6, all dressed in black, and gave her ‘a wine cordial’ to drink.  It’s possible this was laudanum, a mixture of opium dissolved in wine or spirits.

M. Dubois ordered a Bed stead into the middle of the room. Astonished, I turned to Dr Larry, who had promised that an Arm Chair would suffice; but he hung his head, & would not look at me. Two old mattresses M. Dubois then demanded, & an old Sheet. I now began to tremble violently…

M. Dubois placed me upon the mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face…. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, & made their examination … I feared they imagined the whole breast infected – feared it too justly – for, again through the Cambric, I saw the hand of M. Dubois held up, while his forefinger first described a straight line from top to bottom of the breast, secondly a Cross, & thirdly a Circle; intimating that the WHOLE was to be taken off….

When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I 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. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound – but when again I felt the instrument – describing a curve – cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired….

The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered… I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone – scraping it!…

To conclude, the evil was so profound, the case so delicate, & the precautions necessary for preventing a return so numerous, that the operation, including the treatment & the dressing, lasted 20 minutes!… Twice, I believe, I fainted….

Fanny D’Arblay’s description of her ordeal is deservedly famous.  Many people had terrible surgical experiences in the days before chloroform and lived to tell the tale, but there are few accounts as detailed as Fanny’s.

So why am I telling it?  Because, in very much better circumstances, I’m about to go through the same thing.  I’m putting up a few blog posts to cover the next few grim weeks, but there will be times when I can’t monitor my blog or moderate comments.

Fanny D’Arblay lived for another 27 years after her mastectomy, so it seems that her ordeal was worth it.  However there’s also the possibility that her doctor misdiagnosed the cancer, and the whole terrible experience was unnecessary.  Her biographer, Claire Harman, thinks it’s quite possible that the surgeon, Dr Larry, hadn’t even seen her breast before he arrived that afternoon.  Who knows?

In my case it’s different.  I’ve seen the scans and the biopsy.  Regular mammograms are a really good idea, ladies, even if they do feel a bit like an encounter with a schnitzel machine.  I’ll be back soon, promise.

Claire Harman, Fanny Burney: A Biography (2001)

If anyone is interested, my surgeon spends 2 weeks every year doing voluntary work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  A video about his work appears here.  You can contribute to the work of Heal Africa here.

This time last year:
7 Books that changed the way I think about history, 21 August 2012
Celebrity Chefs and Soup Kitchens, 26 August 2012

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14 responses to “Thank God for Anaesthesia

  1. Barbara Goss

    The very best of good wishes, Marion. Luckily my ancestor Sir James Young Simpson “invented anaesthaesia” in time for you!

  2. May it go well and as painlessly as possible.

  3. Will be thinking good thoughts for you

  4. Ross Cameron

    Sorry to hear of your setback, Marion. My sister is a ten year survivor of a mastectomy and embraces life. Best wishes and a speedy return to your writing. Ross Cameron

  5. It is a justly famous description and every time that I read it, I marvel at her courage and, indeed, the courage of all of those who underwent surgery before anaesthesia. Revealingly, many surgeons were deeply fearful before surgery, too. Peter Stanley’s book, ‘For Fear of Pain, British Surgery, 1790-1850,’ (Clio Medica 70, 2003) uses their diaries and letters, among other sources, but I don’t recommend that you read it until after tomorrow! Undergoing surgery today still requires courage, but I know you will be in very good hands. In contrast to Fanny Burney’s day, this is now very much a routine procedure undergone safely by many thousands of women.

  6. Mary-Ann Turnbull

    Very best wishes Marion.

  7. I found Fanny D’Arblay’s account very hard to read and I certainly wasn’t expecting what followed. All the best for your operation and recovery!

  8. Prayers going up. Thank God we all live in the age of anesthesia – Fanny D’Arblay was one tough cookie!

  9. What a wonderful account – I’m still shivering. Take care and I hope everything goes well. Looking forward to your speedy recovery and many more blog posts!

  10. Pingback: Yew: the graveyard plant that is now saving lives | Historians are Past Caring

  11. Pingback: An archive to mark a milestone | Historians are Past Caring

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