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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Class 27

Nov 30: Frances Burney, The Journal and Letters (2811-2827), esp. "The Mastectomectomy" Also read Julia Epstein, "Writing the Unspeakable: Fanny Burney's Mastectomy and the Fictive Body," Representations, No. 16 (Autumn 1986): 131-166, which you can find through JSTOR at the USF Library.


Class Objectives:

  • To discuss the "mastectomy letter"
  • To evaluate Epstein's interpretation of the letter
  • To draw some conclusions about representations of the body in eighteenth-century literature

    The last excerpt from Burney's journals and letters is a particularly fascinating, although disturbingly graphic, narration of Burney's mastectomy in 1811. As Epstein's article point out, this document is significant both in the history of medicine and in the history of life writing. For Epstein, the document also draws to a head several significant themes in Burney's writing. For us, this reading closes the course on seventeenth and eighteenth-century literature with a focus on the body.



    Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


    1. The letter

    Evaluate the opening paragraph of Burney's letter. Why is she writing to her family? How does her intention and audience affect the representation of her experience?

    Compare the role of doctors in this letter with that in the letter on meeting the king. How does Burney feel about the different doctors? What roles do they play in her story? (How do these doctors compare to other doctors we have seen in the literature this semester namely in Humphry Clinker?).

    How would you describe the narration of her operation? Does it read like a novel? Why or why not?

    Examine in particular the passage on page 2824-5, with the arrival of the "7 men in black". How is the scene described?

    Analyze the representation of the surgery itself (p. 2825-6). What is the scientific value of this document? What is the literary value of the document? (See questions on Epstein below.)

    Why does Mme. D'Arblay feel such concern for her husband? Her son? The doctors themselves?

    Why does it take Burney so long before she is able to write about this event? (She says it occurred nine months ago.) Why does it take so long for her to finish writing it? (She says she started it three months ago.)


    2. Julia Epstein's article

    Epstein's article is an impressive orchestration of information on medical history, narrative analysis, and scholarship on Burney. She puts the mastectomy letter in a context of medical history that will help you appreciate the scientific details of the procedure -- Burney's experience is not ususual for the time, although because of her social standing in Paris she receives the best medical attention. She also puts the letter in the context of Burney's life and writings that will give you a sense of the letter's significance as a personal account of the traumatic surgery and Burney's character as it is conveyed through the writing. The essay is full of useful information, and it offers a provocative reading of the letter in which Burney is both patient -- the one who undergoes a surgery to remove breast cancer -- and surgeon -- a woman wielding a pen like a scapel to exorcise the pain and promote healing. She suggests some meaningful parallels between writing and surgery that we may be able to discuss.

    Part I -- introduces her argument with some background on Burney's writing: "Burney needs to crack surfaces, to get beneath the facades of politeness, decorum, and propriety, in order to tell her story. Writing and violence operate together for Burney; she continually ties language to eruptions of dread, delirium, and the tyrannies of social convention" (135).

    Part II -- Epstein describes for us Burney's pain in composing the letter, where writing becomes a form of anesthesia, distancing Burney from the bodily pain by containing it in narration.

    Part III -- (begins 141) Epstein analyzes the intentions and goals of the document, to provide a whole history of the newly "unwhole body." In this section she analyzes the "case history" aspect of Burney's letter, and the use of feminine language of euphemism and disguise in the letter. Here she suggests that Burney's concern for both the doctors and her husband is a way of exerting the same type of control that the doctors are using on her. She also analyzes the ways in which fiction and case-history intersect in the narrating of her own surgery, an extremely rare event in medical history for some obvious reasons. (How can the patient know what goes on in the surgery? Then again who better than the patient to know what is going on with her body?) Here Epstein offers some insightful views of what it means for the patient/writer to translate the bodily experience into language as a means of coming to terms with the terror of surgery and pain.

    Part IV -- This section analyzes the document as it belongs in medical history. It is unique in that it represents the reception of surgery rather than the production of surgery. She analyzes the differences between the medical reports of Burney's surgery and Burney's own account.

    Part V -- Epstein argues that in narrating her surgery as a successful event she obscures the narrative of disfigurement that results from mastectomy. In this section she compares Burney's mastectomy to other in history and places these in a context that appreciates the moral and sexual significance of the breast. "That Mary Astell and Lady Delacour and Fanny Burney never explicitly address the moral and sexual threat breast disease and breast amputation posed for them does not mean they were not aware of that threat" (156).

    Part VI -- Epstein provides a review of the history of mastectomy to demonstrate that Burney's surgery was not unqiue.

    Part VII-- Epstein demonstrates that Burney's letter is significant as both a document of medical history and narration as witness to the development of "both literature and medicine as professional activities, repositories of knowledge, and narrative discipline" (160). She argues: "Burney wielded her pen on that occasion as Larrey had wielded his knife, as a natural instrument of aggression and necessary wounding that permitted her, by veiling and dissecting the body, also to construct and to take possession of a female self rendered invulnerable in writing precisely in response to its radical vulnerability in surgery" (162).


    3. The Body in eighteenth-century literature

    How does this account of the body shed light on other bodies we have encountered in the literature of the era? Is the "real" body representable? Does Burney unveil her body or veil it through narration? How is this like or unlike, for example, Smollett's representation of the sick body in Humphry Clinker. What do we learn from Burney's account?


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