Frances Burney was a novelist, born in 1752 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, to physician and highly regarded musician, scholar, and historian Dr Charles Burney and his first wife Esther Sleepe. Burney was a keen writer from a young age; a passion she pursued throughout her life. At the age of 16 she began the diary that would chronicle personal and public events, including the early reign of George III, and a detailed account of her own mastectomy.
Wellcome Library provides access to various resources relating to Frances (Fanny) Burney, including access to her journal entries on the British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries database.
As well as the acclaimed novels Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), Burney is known for being keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, who was married to George III, for five years (1786 – 1791) . Burney stopped writing novels during this period, as court life took its toll on her health. Her journal entries revealed misery and depression on her part, and on those affected by the King’s illness.
This period of Burney’s life features heavily in her writings, and are included in the British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries database. Her diary entries are typically frequent and start with her feelings of the given day. Some days she feels optimistic and delighted at some good news, and other days the entries start on a dismal note.
What resonates throughout, however, is the emotive nature of the entries. Burney lives and breathes the royal family during this period. She feel’s their joy and their pain. She comes across as loyal and empathetic during a difficult period, as is shown by this entry from 1788:
1 December 1788, Kew
“– Mournful was the opening of the month! …my poor Royal Mistress began to sink more than I had ever yet seen. No wonder; the length of the malady so uncertain…the house is in a state of cold and discomfort past all imagination.” (from Diary of Frances Burney d’Arblay, 1752-1840).
King George was at this point going through his first serious episode of mental ill health, which had started in October. Fanny escaped the royal household when Queen Charlotte gave her special permission to resign.
After her release from court life, Burney’s health improved and she met and married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay, who was a career soldier. Their marriage was a very happy one. They had a son, Alexander, and remained devoted to each other until D’Arblay died in 1818.
In 1811 Burney was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being a successful novelist afforded her medical attention from Napoleon’s personal physician Baron Larrey:
” hovering over my head was the stiletto of a surgeon for a menace of cancer; yet, till that moment, hope of escape had always been held out to me by the Baron de Larrey — hope which, from the reading of that fatal letter, became extinct.” (from Diary of Frances Burney D’Arblay, 1812).
It was at this time that Burney underwent a mastectomy, without anesthetic and being fully conscious during the operation. She wrote a graphic and harrowing account of her ordeal. The Wellcome Library holds an extract from Burney’s journal describing her operation, which was performed by Larrey, entitled A mastectomy (of 30 September 1811). The Library also holds a sound-recorded extract from the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation “Dear Little Burney: extracts on a breast operation.
Through reading Fanny Burney’s honest, descriptive and emotive accounts of the events in her life we can build a picture, not only of this incredible woman’s joys and tribulations, but also gain first-hand accounts about King George’s illness and her own experiences of mastectomy.
As well as the diary entries and events mentioned here, Burney also documented her travels across war-torn Europe, alongside her husband, who was wounded and placed on the retired list of the French army in 1815. Burney herself died in London in 1840 at the age of 87. However, rather tellingly, there are far fewer diary entries after her beloved husband General d’Arblay’s death in 1818.