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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:

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