|Frances d'Arblay (Fanny Burney) by Edward Francisco Burney, 1784|
In 1810 Fanny was living in Passy, just outside Paris, with General Alexandre D'Arblay, her husband of 17 years. For some time she had been complaining of recurring pains in her breast and, fearing she was suffering form cancer, the General summoned a phalanx of leading physicians to tend his wife. Her case was taken on by Antoine Dubois, the most celebrated surgeon in France and a personal doctor to Empress Marie Louise. Although he confirmed the cancer, Dubois privately believed that it had progressed too far for treatment and a distraught D'Arblay handed the responsibility for his wife's medical care over to Dominique Jean Larrey.
In fact, Larrey too was reluctant to operate as he feared that he would simply hasten Fanny's demise. He sought advice and eventually it was agreed that, if she was to stand any chance of recovery, a mastectomy must be performed. At this point Dubois returned to the fold to direct the team of seven who would conduct the operation, with Larrey taking the role of chief surgeon at the patient's own request.
Understandably, Fanny was terrified of what the future might hold but kept her nerve stoically until, on 30 September 1811, the operation began. With no anaesthetic, her suffering was immense and she later wrote at great length on the experience, leaving us in no doubt as to the agony she endured. Yet even then she felt more pity for the surgeons carrying out the work than for herself and though the operation lasted just 20 minutes, it must have felt like an eternity.
She wrote to her sister, Esther, of the experience. It is not an easy account to share and we can only marvel at both the skill of the surgeons and the fortitude of their patient.
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. 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 When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were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. I concluded the operation was 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 – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & -- Oh heaven! – I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!
Although her recovery was a long and uncomfortable process, Frances Burney did indeed recover and lived on for a further 29 years. She remains an icon of the Georgian era, whilst those doctors who attended her went on to continue their own illustrious, celebrated careers.