Profile: Fanny Burney (1752-1840)
Born Frances Burney in King’s Lynn, England in 1752 (1), Fanny Burney was an eighteenth-century novelist and diarist. Her first novel, Evelina was published anonymously when she was 26 (2). In addition to the highly successful Evelina, Burney also wrote novels such as Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796).
In 1810, Burney was diagnosed with suspected breast cancer after seeking medical advice upon feeling a sensation in her breast. She underwent a mastectomy in September of the following year (3). After surgeons were able to successfully treat her cancer, Burney detailed her experiences in a letter which became known as the ‘Mastectomy Letter’ in 1811. The letter was intended as a ‘warning’ for the women close to her on what symptoms should prompt seeking medical advice from a physician. Her letter also described in great detail what to expect in the treatment of breast cancer (via mastectomy) (4).
"How truly does this Journal contain my real and undisguised thoughts!--I always write in it according to the humour I am in, and if any stranger was accidentally reading it, how capricious--inconsistent and whimsical I must appear! One moment flighty and half mad,-- the next sad and melancholy. No matter! it's truth and simplicity are its sole recommendation". - Fanny Burney, 1770 (5)
Within her ‘Mastectomy Letter’, Burney also sympathises with the impact upon her immediate family, specifically her husband General Alexandre D’Arblay (6). Burney had married D’Arblay in 1794, afterwards she used the name 'Madame D'Arblay' for her writing. She remained married to D'Arblay until his death in 1818. Burney lived over thirty years after her mastectomy with no recurrence of her breast cancer. She passed away in 1840 and her cause of death was unspecified.
Burney’s detailed account of her mastectomy remains one of the first autobiographical accounts of breast cancer. Michael E. Adelstein observed that ‘due to her industry, conscientiousness, and ability, much of herself, her family, her friends, and her world remains alive today in her voluminous writings for the enjoyment and information of readers everywhere’ (7). Burney’s creative writing and her various letters and diary entries have allowed people to remember her life and her experiences long after her passing.
(1) ‘Fanny Burney’, Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th June 2021), <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fanny-Burney> [accessed 9 July 2021].
(3) Claire Harman, Fanny Burney: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), p. 71.
(4) Heather Meek, ‘Frances Burney’s Mastectomy Narrative and Discourses of Breast Cancer in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Literature and Medicine, 35:1 (Spring 2017), 27-45 (p. 27).
(5) Fanny Burney, The Famous Miss Burney: The Diaries and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. by Barbara G. Schrank and David J. Supino (New York: John Day, 1976), p. 32.
(6) Burney, Selected Letters and Journals, ed. by Joyce Hemlow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 128.
(7) Michael E. Adelstein, Fanny Burney (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968), p. 146.
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