Letter from Frances Burney to her sister Esther about her mastectomy without anaesthetic, 1812


This is Frances Burney’s moving account of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and undergoing a mastectomy in Paris on 30 September 1811. It is remarkable as a patient’s record of an operation in the era before anaesthesia, and when surgery was still in its infancy.

Writing ‘the whole history’

As Burney was a well-known author news of her illness travelled quickly, but she wanted her loved ones to hear it in her own words. Six months after the operation, she resolved to ‘write the whole history’, and forced herself to recall events in brave, unflinching detail. She sent this 12-page letter to her older sister Esther, labelling it as an ‘Account from Paris of a terrible operation’. A reassuring note at the start (dated 22 March 1812) reveals that ‘all has ended happily’. Burney made a ‘perfect recovery’ and lived for another 29 years.

Why was Frances Burney in Paris?

In 1793, Frances had married a Frenchman, Alexandre Piochard D’Arblay. He was a former military officer to the aristocratic Marquis de Lafayette, and had fled to England in 1791, during the French Revolution. In 1802, the D’Arblays were in France with their son, also named Alexandre, when the Napoleonic Wars restarted and they were trapped there for 10 years.

A woman’s experience of the world of surgery

In this letter, Burney describes how she felt a pain in her right breast in August 1810, but resisted seeing a doctor until she was urged to do so by her friends and husband. When she finally consented, D’Arblay used his noble connections to ensure that she was treated by ‘the most celebrated’ French surgeons: Dr Dubois was also attending the pregnant Empress Marie-Louise; Dr Larrey was military surgeon to Napoleon.

After months of uncertainty, Burney accepted their judgement that surgery was needed. As the hour of her operation approached, she focussed on sparing her husband pain. She sent 16-year-old Alex to ask his father’s colleague to call him away on ‘urgent business’, while she tried to calm herself and scribbled them a note. But when ‘7 Men in black’ arrived unannounced – five doctors and two students ‒ Burney was ‘indignant’. She shouted for her women to stay, and one nurse remained with her. As the operation started, a handkerchief was spread over her face, but she ‘saw the glitter of polished Steel’ through the transparent fabric.

Monsieur D’Arblay’s note

When the ordeal was over, Frances was reunited with her two Alexandres. Here, her letter pauses as she passes the pen to her husband, and D’Arblay adds his own note in a neater hand. He thanks God for her ‘sublime courage’ and says it has ‘almost killed’ him to read this for the first time. Frances resumes, asking Esther to share the letter with others, but hoping their elderly father will never hear of it.


Account from
Paris of a Terrible
Operation – 1812

P.S. I have promised my dearest Esther a Volume – & here it is: I am at this moment
quite well – so are my Alexanders. Read, therefore, this narrative at your leisure, & without
emotion – for all has ended happily. I will send the rest by the very first opportunity: I seize this present
with eagerness – oh let none – none pass by that may being me a return! – I have no more yet written.

March 22.


Separated as I have now so long – long been from my dearest
Father – Brothers – Sisters – & Nieces, and Native Friends, I would spare, at least, their
kind hearts any grief for me but what they must inevitably feel in reflect-
-ing upon the sorrow of such absence to one so tenderly attached to all
her first and for-ever so dear and regretted ties – – nevertheless, if they should hear that
I have been dangerously ill from any hand but my own, they might have doubts
of my perfect recovery which my own alone can obviate. And how can I hope
they will escape hearing what has reached Seville to the South, and Constantinople to
the East? from both I have had messages – yet nothing could urge me to this communi
-cation till I heard that M. Boinville had written it to his Wife, without any precaution,
because in ignorance of my plan of silence. Still I must hope it may never travel
to my dearest Father – But to You, my beloved Esther, who, living more in the World, will surely
hear it ere long, to you I will write the whole history, certain that, from the moment
you know any evil has befallen me your kind kind heart will be constantly
anxious to learn its extent & its circumstances, as well as its termination.

About August, in the year 1810, I began to by annoyed by a small pain in my breast, which went
on augmenting from week to week, yet, being rather heavy than acute, without causing me
any uneasiness with respect to consequences: Alas, “what was ignorance?” The most
sympathising of Partners, however, was more disturbed: not a start, not a wry face, not a
movement that indicated pain was unobserved, & he early conceived apprehensions to
which I was a stranger. He pressed me to see some Surgeon; I revolted from the idea, &
hoped, by care & warmth, to make all succour unnecessary. Thus passed some months,
during which Madame de Maisonneuve, my particularly intimate friend, joined with M.
d’Arblay to press me to consent to an examination. I thought their fears groundless,
and could not make so great a conquest over my repugnance. I relate this false
confidence, now, as a warning to my dear Esther – my Sisters & Nieces, should any
similar sensations excite similar alarm. M. d’Arnow revealed his uneasiness to another
of our kind friends, Mme de Tracy, who wrote to me a long and eloquent Letter upon the sub-
-ject, that began to awaken very unpleasant surmizes: & a conference with her ensued,
in which her urgency & representations, aided by her long experience of disease, &
most miserable existence by art, subdued me, and, most painfully & reluctantly, I
ceased to object, & M. d’A summoned a physician…. M. Bourdois? Maria will cry; –
No, my dear Maria, I would not give your beau frere that trouble; not him, but Dr Jouart,
the physician of Miss. Potts. Thinking but slightly of my statement, he gave me

some directions that produced no fruit – on the contrary, I grew worse, & M. d’A now
would take no denial to my consulting M. Dubois, who had already attended & cured
me in an abscess of which Maria, my dearest Esther, can give you the history. M. Du-
-bois, the most celebrated surgeon of France, was then appointed accoucheur to the Empress, & already
lodged in the Tuilleries, & in constant attendance: but nothing could slacken the ardour
of M. d’Ar to obtain the first advice. Fortunately for his kind wishes, M. Dubois had retained
a partial regard for me from the time of his former attendance, &, when applied to
through a third person, he took the first moment of liberty, granted by a promenade
taken by the Empress, to come to me. It was now I began to perceive my real danger,
M. Dubois gave me a prescription to be pursued for a month, during which time he could
not undertake to see me again, & pronounced nothing – but uttered so many charges to me
to be tranquil, & to suffer no uneasiness, that I could not but suspect there was room
for terrible inquietude. My alarm was encreased by the non-appearance of M. d’A after
his departure. They had remained together some time in the Book room, & M. d’A did not
return – till, unable to bear the suspence, I begged him to come back. He, also, sought
then to tranquilize me – but in words only; his looks were shocking! his features,
his whole face displayed the bitterest woe. I had not, therefore, much difficulty in
telling myself what he endeavoured not to tell me – that a small operation would
be necessary to avert evil consequences.! – Ah, my dearest Esther, for this I felt no courage –
my dread & repugnance, from a thousand reasons besides the pain, almost shook my fa-
-culties, &, for some time, I was rather confounded & stupefied than affrighted. – Direful,
however was the effect of this interview; the pains became quicker & more violent,
& the hardness of the spot affected encreased. I took, but vainly, my proscription, & every
symtom grew more serious. At that time, M. de Narbonne spoke to M. d’A of a Surgeon
of great eminence, M. Larrey, who had cured a polonoise Lady of his acquaintance
of a similar malady; &, as my horror of an operation was insuperable, M. de N
strongly recommended that I should have recourse to M. Larrey. I thankfully caught
at any hope; & another friend of M. d’A gave the same counsel at the same in-
-stant, which other, M. Barbier Neuville, has an influence irresistible over this
M. Larrey, to whom he wrote the most earnest injunction that he would use every
exertion to rescue me from what I so much dreaded. M. Larrey came, though very
unwillingly, & full of scruples concerning M. Dubois; nor would he give me his services
till I wrote myself to state my affright at the delay of attendance occasioned by the
present high office & royal confinement of M. Dubois, & requesting that I might be
made over to M. Larrey. An answer such as might be expected arrived, & I was

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Enquire means to write to me, my Esther, an All my dears, in pity.

[main body of letter]

now put upon a new regime, and animated by fairest hopes. – M. Larrey
has proved one of the worthiest, most disinterested, & singularly excellent of men,
endowed with real Genius in his profession, though with an ignorance of the
World & its usages that induces a naiveté that leads those who do not see him
thoroughly to think him not alone simple, but weak. They are mistaken; but his
attention & thoughts having exclusively turned one way, he is hardly awake any other.
His directions seemed all to succeed, for though I had still cruel seizures of
terrible pain, the fits were shorter & more rare, & my spirits revived, & I went
out almost daily, & quite daily received to my Apartment some friend or intimate
acquaintance, contrarily to my usual mode of sauvagerie – and what friends I have
found! what kind, consoling, zealous friends during all this painful period! In
fine, I was much better, & every symptom of alarm abated. My good M. Larrey was en-
-chanted, yet so anxious, that he forced me to see le Docteur Ribe, the first anatomist,
he said, in France, from his own fear lest he was under any delusion, from the
excess of his desire to save me. I was as rebellious to the first visit of this
famous anatomist as Maria will tell you I had been to that of M. Dubois, so odious
to me was this sort of process: however, I was obliged to submit: & M. Ribe confirmed
our best hopes . . . . Here, my dearest Esther, I must grow brief, for my theme becomes
less pleasant – Sundry circumstances, too long to detail, combined to counter-act all my
flattering expectations, & all the skill, & all the cares of my assiduous & excellent Surgeon.
The principal of these evils were – the death, broke to me by a newspaper! of the lovely & loved
Ps Amelia – the illness of her venerated father – and the sudden loss of my nearly adored – my Susan’s
nearly worshipped Mr Lock – which terrible calamity reached me in a few lines from
Fanny Waddington, when I knew not of any illness or fear! – Oh my Esther, I must
indeed be brief, for I am not yet strong enough for sorrow. – The good M.
Larrey, when he came to me next after the last of these trials, was quite thrown
into a consternation, so changed he found all for the worse – “Et qu’est il donc
arrive?” he cried, & presently, sadly, announced his hope of dissolving the hardness
were nearly extinguished. M. Ribe was now again called in – but he only corroborated
the terrible judgement; yet they allowed me to my pleadings some further essays, & the more easily
as the weather was not propitious to any operation. My Exercise, at this time, though always
useful & chearing, occasioned me great suffering in its conclusion, from mounting up three
pair of stairs: my tenderest Partner, therefore, removed me to La Rue Mirmenil,
where I began my Paris residence nearly 10 Years ago! – quite 10 next Month! Here we are

au premier (on the first floor) – but alas – to no effect! once only have I yet descended the short flight
of steps from which I had entertained new hopes. A Physician was now called in, Dr
Moreau, to hear if he could suggest any new means: but Dr Larrey had left him no
resources untried. A formal consultation now was held, of Larrey, Ribe, & Moreau – and, in tine,
I was formally condemned to an operation by all Three. I was as much astonished as
disappointed – for the poor breast was no where discoloured, & not much larger than
its healthy neighbour. Yet I felt the evil to be deep, so deep, that I often thought if it could
not be dissolved, it could only with life be extirpated. I called up, however, all the reason
I possessed, or could assume, & told them that – if they saw no other alternative, I would not
resist their opinion & experience: – the good Dr. Larrey, who, during his long attendance
had conceived for me the warmest friendship, had now tears in his Eyes; from my dread
he had expected resistance. He proposed again calling in M. Dubois. No, I told him, if I could
not by himself be saved, I had no sort of hope elsewhere, &, if it must be, what I wanted in
courage should be supplied by Confidence. The good man was now dissatisfied with himself,
and declared that I ought to have the First & most eminent advice his Country could afford;
“Vous êtes si considerée,” Madame, said he, “ici, que le public même sera mecontent si vous
n’avez pas tout le secour que nous avons à vous offrir. –” Yet this modest man is
premier chirugien de la Garde Imperiale, & had been lately created a Baron for his eminent
services! – M. Dubois, he added, from his super-skill and experience, might yet, perhaps, suggest
some cure. This conquered me quickly, ah – Send for him! Send for him! I cried – & Dr
Moreau received the commission to consult with him. – What an interval was this!
Yet my poor M. d’A was more to be pitied than myself, though he knew not
the terrible idea I had internally annexed to the trial – but Oh what he suffered! – & with what
exquisite tenderness he solaced all that I had to bear! My poor Alex I kept as much as
possible, and as long, ignorant of my situation. – M. Dubois behaved extremely
well, no pique intervened with the interest he had professed in my well-doing, & his
conduct was manly & generous. It was difficult still to see him, but he appointed
the earliest day in his power for a general & final consultation. I was informed
of it only on the Same day, to avoid any useless agitation. He met here Drs Larrey,
Ribe, and Moreau. The case, I saw, offered uncommon difficulties, or presented eminent
danger, but the examination over, they desired to consult together. I left
them – what an half hour I passed alone! – M. d’A was at his office. Dr Larrey
then came to summon me. He did not speak, but looked very like my dear Brother
James, to whom he has a personal resemblance that has struck M. d’A as well as my-
-self. I came back, & took my seat, with what calmness I was able. All were silent,
& Dr Larrey, I saw, hid himself nearly behind my Sofa. My heart beat fast: I saw all
hope was over. I called upon them to speak. M. Dubois then, after a long & unintelligible
harangue, from his own disturbance, pronounced my doom. I now saw it was inevitable,
and abstained from any further effort. They received my formal consent, & retired to fix a day.

All hope of escaping this evil now at an end, I could only console or
employ my Mind in considering how to render it less dreadful to M. d’A. M. Dubois had pro-
-nounced “il faut s’attendre à souffrir, Je ne veux pas vous tromper – Vous Souffrirez – vous
souffrirez beaucoup! –” M. Ribe had charged me to cry! to withhold or restrain myself might
have seriously bad consequences, he said. M. Moreau, in echoing this injunction, enquired whe-
-ther I had cried or screamed at the birth of Alexander – Alas, I told him, it had not been
possible to do otherwise; Oh then, he answered, there is no fear! – What terrible infer-
-ences were here to be drawn! I desired, therefore, that M. d’A might be kept in ignorance
of the day till the operation should be over. To this they agreed, except M. Larrey, with high
approbation: M. Larrey looked dissentient, but was silent. M. Dubois protested he would not
undertake to act, after what he had seen of the agitated spirits of M. d’A if he were pre-
-sent: nor would he suffer me to know the time myself over night; I obtained with
difficulty a promise of 4 hours warning, which were essential to me for sundry regulations.
From this time, I assumed the best spirits in my power, to meet the coming blow; –
& support my too sympathising Partner. They would let me make no preparations, refusing
to inform me what would be necessary; I have known, since, that Mme de Tessé, an admi-
-rable old friend of M. d’A, now mine, equally, & one of the first of her sex, in any country,
for uncommon abilities, & nearly universal knowledge, had insisted upon sending
me all that might be necessary, & of keeping me in ignorance. M. d’A filled a Closet with
Charpie, compresses, & bandages – All that to me was owned, ˄ as wanting, was an arm Chair
& some Towels. – Many things, however, joined to the depth of my pains, assured me the business
was not without danger. I therefore made my Will – unknown, to this moment, to M. d’A, &
entrusted it privately to M. La Tour Maubourg, without even letting my friend his Sister,
Mme de Maisonneuve, share the secret. M. de Mg conveyed it for me to Maria’s excellent
M. Gillet, from whom M. de Mg brought me directions. As soon as I am able to go out I
shall reveal this clandestine affair to M. d’A .. till then, if might still affect him. Mme de
Maisonneuve desired to be present at the operation; – but I would not inflict such pain. Mme de Chastel
belle soeur de Mme de Boinville, would also have sustained the shock; but I secured two Guards,
one of whom is known to my two dear Charlottes, Mme Soubiren, portiere de l’Hotel
Marengo: a very good Creature, who often amuses me by repeating “ver. vell, Mawm;” which
she tells me she learnt of Charlotte the younger, whom she never names but with rapture,
The other is a workman whom I have often employed. The kindnesses I received at this peri-
-od would have made me for-ever love France, had I hitherto been hard enough of heart to
hate it – but Mme d’Henin – the tenderness she shewed me surpasses all description. Twice she came to
Paris from the Country, to see, watch & sit with me; there is nothing that can be suggested
of use or comfort that she omitted. She loves me not only from her kind heart, but also from
her love of Mrs. Lock, often, often, exclaiming “Ah! si votre Angelique amie étoit ici! –” But
I must force myself from these episodes, though my dearest Esther will not think them de trop.

After sentence thus passed, I was in hourly expectation of a summons to
execution; judge, then to my surprise to be suffered to on full 3 Weeks in the same
state! M. Larrey from time to time visited me, but pronounced nothing, & was always
melancholy. At length, M d’A was told that he waited himself for a Summons!
& that, a formal one, & in writing! I could not give one. A consent was my utmost
effort. But poor M. d’A wrote a desire that the operation, if necessary, might take place with-
-out further delay. In my own mind, I had all this time been persuaded there were
hopes of a cure: why else, I thought, let me know my doom thus long? But here
I must account for this apparently useless, & therefore cruel measure, though I only
learnt it myself 2 months afterwards. M. Dubois had given his opinion that the evil
was too far advanced for any remedy; that the cancer was already internally declar-
-ed; that I was inevitably destined to that most frightful of deaths, & that an ope-
-ration would but accellerate my dissolution. Poor M. Larrey was so deeply affected by
this sentence, that – as he has lately told me, – he regretted to his Soul ever having known
me, & was upon the point of demanding a commission to the furthest end of France
in order to force me into other hands. I had said, however, he remembered, once, that
I would far rather suffer a quick end without, than a lingering life with this dreadfullest
of maladies: he finally, therefore, considered it might be possible to save me by the trial,
but that without it my case was desperate, & resolved to make the attempt. Nevertheless, the
responsibility was too great to rest upon his own head entirely; & therefore he waited the
formal summons. – In fine, One morning – the last of September, 1811, while I was in Bed,
& M. d’A was arranging some papers for his office, I received a Letter written by M. de Lally to a
Journalist, in vindication of the honoured memory of his Father against the assertions of Mme
du Deffand. I read it aloud to My Alexanders, with tears of admiration & sympathy, & then sent it by
Alex: to its excellent Author, as I had promised the preceding evening. I then then dressed, aided, as usual
for many months, by my maid, my right arm being condemned to total inaction; but not yet
was the grand business over, when another Letter was delivered to me – another, indeed! –
’twas from M. Larrey, to acquaint me that at 10 o’clock he should be with me, properly accompa-
-nied, & to exhort me to rely upon as much upon his sensibility & his prudence, as upon his dexterity
& his experience; he charged to secure the absence of M. d’A: & told me that the young Physician
who would deliver me this announce, would prepare for the operation, in which he must lend his
aid: & also that it had been the decision of the consultation to allow me but two hours’ notice. –
judge, my Esther, if I read this unmoved! – yet I had to disguise my sensations & intentions from
M. d’A! – Dr Aumont, the Messenger & terrible Herald, was in waiting; M. d’A stood by my bed
side; I affected to be long reading the Note, to gain time for forming some plan, & such was
my terror of involving M. d’A in the unavailing wretchedness of witnessing what
I must go through, that it conquered every other, & gave me the force to act as
if I were directing some third person. The detail would be too Wordy, as James

says, but the wholesale is – I called Alex to my Bedside, and sent him to inform M. Bar-
-bier Neuville, chef du division du Bureau de M. d’Arblay that the moment was come, &
I entreated him to write a summons upon urgent business for M. d’A & to
detain him till all should be over. Speechless & appalled, off went Alex, &, as
I have since heard, was forced to sit down & sob in executing his commission.
I then, by the maid, sent word to the young Dr. Aumont that I could not
be ready till one o’clock: & I finished my breakfast, & – not with much appe-
-tite, you will believe! forced down a crust of bread, & hurried off, under va-
-rious pretences, M. d’A. He was scarcely gone, when M Du Bois arrived:
I renewed my request for one o’clock: the rest came; all were fain to consent
to the delay, for I had an apartment to prepare for my banished Mate.
This arrangement, & those for myself, occupied me completely. Two engaged
nurses were out of the way – I had a bed, Curtains, & heaven knows what to
prepare – but business was good for my nerves. I was obliged to quit my room
to have it put in order. – Dr. Aumont would not leave the house; he remained in
the Salon, folding linen! – He had demanded 4 or 5 old & fine left off under Garments
I glided to our Book Cabinet: sundry necessary works & orders filled up my time entire-
-ly till One O’clock, When all was ready – but Dr. Moreau then arrived, with news
that M. Dubois could not attend till three. Dr Aumont went away – & the Coast
was clear. This, indeed, was a dreadful interval. I had no longer any thing
to do – I had only to think – Two Hours thus spent seemed never-ending. I would fain have
written to my dearest Father – to You, my Esther – to Charlotte James – Charles – Amelia Lock – but
my arm prohibited me: I strolled to the Sallon – 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: – I walked backwards & forwards till I quieted
all emotion, & became, by degrees, nearly stupid – torpid, without sentiment or con-
-sciousness; – & thus I remained till the Clock struck three. A sudden spirit of
exertion then returned, – I defied my poor arm, no longer worth sparing, & took
my long banished pen to write a few words to M. d’A – and a few more for Alex,
in case of ˄ a fatal result. These short billets I could only deposit safely, when
the Cabriolets – one – two – three – four – succeeded rapidly to each other in stopping at
the door. Dr. Moreau instantly entered my room, to see if I were alive. He gave
me a wine cordial, & went to the Sallon. I called ˄ rang for my Maid & Nurses, – but before
I could speak to them, my room, without previous message, was entered by 7
Men in black, Dr Larry, M. Dubois, Dr Moreau, Dr Aumont, Dr Ribe, & a pupil of Dr
Larry, & another of M. Dubois. I was now awakened

from my stupor – & by a sort of indignation – Why so many? & without leave? – But I
could not utter a syllable. M. Dubois acted as Commander in Chief. Dr Larry kept out of sight;
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 mattrasses M. Dubois then demanded, & an old Sheet. I now began to tremble
violently, more with distaste & horror of the preparations even than of the pain. These
arranged to his liking, he desired me to mount the Bed stead. I stood suspended, for a
moment, whether I should not abruptly escape – I looked at the door, the windows –
I felt desperate – but it was only for a moment, my reason then took the command, & my fears
& feelings struggled vainly against it. I called to my maid – she was crying, & the two Nurses
stood, transfixed, at the door. Let those women all go! cried M. Dubois. This order recovered
me my Voice – No, I cried, let them stay! qu’elles restent! This occasioned a little dis-
-pute, that re-animated me – The Maid, however, & one of the nurses ran off – I charged
the other to approach, & she obeyed. M. Dubois now tried to issue his commands en militaire,
but I resisted all that were resistable – I was compelled, however, to submit to taking
off my long robe de Chambre, which I had meant to retain – Ah, then, how did I think of
My Sisters! – not one, at so dreadful an instant, at hand, to protect – adjust – guard me –
I regretted that I had refused Me de Maisonneuve – Me Chastel – no one upon whom I could rely –
my departed Angel! – how did I think of her! – how did I long – long for my
Esther – my Charlotte! – My distress distress was, I suppose, apparent, though not my Wishes,
for M. Dubois himself now softened, & spoke soothingly. Can You, I cried, feel for an
operation that, to You, must seem so trivial? – Trivial? he repeated – taking up a
bit of paper, which he tore, unconsciously, into a million of pieces, oui – c’est peu
de chosemais –” he stammered, & could not go on. No one else attempted to speak,
but I was softened myself, when I saw even M. Dubois grow agitated, while
Dr Larry kept always aloof, yet a glance shewed me he was pale as
ashes. I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing con-
-vinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could
alone save me from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead – &
M. Dubois placed me upon the mattrass, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon
my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead
was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. 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 – Oh what a horrible suspension! – I did not breathe – & M. Du-
-bois tried vainly to find any pulse. This pause, at length, was broken by Dr
Larry, who, in a voice of solemn melancholy, said “Qui me tiendra ce sein? –”
No one answered; at least not verbally; but this aroused me from my passively
submissive state, for 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. Excited by this idea, I started up, threw off my veil, &, in answer to the
demand “Qui me tiendra ce sein?” cried “C’est moi, Monsieur!” & I held
My hand under it, & explained the nature of my sufferings, which all sprang
from one point, though they darted into every part. I was heard attentively,
but in utter silence, & M. Dubois then re-placed me as before, &, as before, spread
my veil over my face. How vain, alas, my representation! immediately again
I saw the fatal finger describe the Cross – & the circle – Hopeless, then, desperate,
& self-given up, I closed once more my Eyes, relinquishing all watching, all
resistance, all interference, & sadly resolute to be wholly resigned.
My dearest Esther, – & all my dears to whom she communicates this doleful
ditty, will rejoice to hear that this resolution once taken, was firmly adhered to, in
defiance of a terror that surpasses all description, & the most torturing pain.
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 – 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 ex-
-pired. I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermeti
-cally shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into
the Cheeks. 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 dread-
ful 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 rackling against the breast
bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly
speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a
dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to
pronounce if he thought the operation complete, or if any thing more
remained to be done; ˄ or if they he thought the operation complete. The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of
Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though
I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive
was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began
the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a
peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after
attom. – My dearest Esther, not for days, not for Weeks, but for
Months I could not speak of this terrible business without nearly
again going through it! I could not think of it with impu-
-nity! I was sick, I was disordered by a single question – even
now, 9 months after it is over, I have a head ache from going on
with the account! & this miserable account, which I began
3 Months ago, at least, I dare not read, nor revise, nor read,
the recollection is still so painful.

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 and the dressing, lasted 20 minutes! a
time, for sufferings so acute, that was hardly supportable – However, I
bore it with all the courage I could exert, & never moved, nor stopt them,
nor resisted, nor remonstrated, nor spoke – except once or twice, during
the dressings, to say “Ah Messieurs! que je vous plains! –” for indeed I
was sensible to the feeling concern with which they all saw what I en-
-dured, though my speech was principally – very principally meant
for Dr Larry. Except this, I uttered not a syllable, save, when so often
they re-commenced, calling out “Avertissez moi, Messieurs! Avertissez
moi! –” Twice, I believe, I fainted; at least, I have two total
chasms in my memory of this transaction, that impede my tying
together what passed. When all was done, & they lifted me up
that I might be put to bed, my strength was so totally annihi-
-lated, that I was obliged to be carried, & could not even sustain
my hands & arms, which hung as if I had been lifeless; while
my face, as the Nurse has told me, was utterly colourless. This
removal made me open my Eyes – & I then saw my good Dr Larry,
pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression
depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horrour.
When I was in bed, – my poor M. d’Arblay – who ought to write
you himself his own history of this Morning – was called to me – &
afterwards our Alex. –

[M. d’Arblay’s hand]

No! No my dearest & ever more dear friend, I shall not make a fruitless attempt. No
Language could convey what I felt in the deadly course of those Seven hours. Nevertheless every one
of you, my dearest dearest friends, can guess, must even know it. Alexander had no less feeling, but showed
more fortitude. He, perhaps, will be more able to describe to you, nearly at least, the torturing state of my poor
heart & soul. Beside, I must own to you, that those details which were, till just now, quite
unknown to me, have almost killed me; & I am only able to thank God that this more than half
Angel has had the Sublime courage to deny herself the comfort I might have afforded her, to spare me,
Not the sharing of her excruciating pains, that was impossible, but the witnessing so terrific a Scare, & perhaps
The remorse to have rendered it more tragic. For I don’t flatter myself I could have got through it – I must
confess it.

Thank Heaven! She is now Surprisingly well, & in good spirits, & we hope to have
many many still happy days. May that of peace soon arrive, and enable me to
embrace better them with my peu [?] my beloved & ever ever more dear friends of the
town & country – Amen. Amen!

[Frances Burney’s hand]

God bless my dearest Esther – I fear this is all written
confusedly, but I cannot read it – & I can write it no more, therefore
I entreat you to let all my dear brethren male & female take a perusal –
and that you will hand it also to my tender & most beloved Mrs Angerstein,
who will pardon, I will know, my sparing myself – which is sparing her, a
separate letter upon such a theme. My dearest father & my dearest Mrs
Lock live so little in the world, that I flatter myself they will never
hear of this adventure. I earnestly desire it may never reach them.
My kind Miss Cambridge & Miss Baker, also, may easily escape it. I leave
all others, & all else, to your own decision.
I ought to have mentioned Sarah when I regretted & sighed for my
Sisters, for I am sure she would gladly & affectionately have nurse me
had she been at hand: but at that critical moment I only thought of
those who had already – & so often – had opportunity as well as soul
to demonstrate their tenderness – and She who is gone ever, & on all
occasions, still present to me. Adieu, adieu, my beloved Esther –

Full title:
Berg Coll MSS Arblay
March 22‒June 1812, Paris
Manuscript / Letter
Frances Burney, Alexandre D'Arblay
Usage terms

© Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Held by
The Berg Collection, New York Public Library
Box 1 of 2, Arblay, F.B. d', A.L.S. to her sister, Esther B. Burney, Jan, 8, 1781-March 12, 1819. In Folder 8: Arblay, Frances Burney d'. 1 A.L.S. and 4 A.L. to her sister, Esther Burney. Passy and Paris, May 14, 1803-March 22-1812. Includes ""mastectomy letter."

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