Frances Burney started feeling pain in her breast in 1810, and in September 1811 a mastectomy was performed to her. In her letter ”A Mastectomy” she describes the illness and the operation, her feelings and fears, to her sister Esther Burney. The letter tells a story of a battle of control and against the feeling of powerlessness. It also speaks of empowerment; writing is Burney's way of regaining control over her operation and making it part of her own history. In this paper I attempt to find and analyse the reasons for Burney's feeling of powerlessness, its describtion in the letter, and the ways she tries to fight it.
Although the moment when Fraces Burney as a character of the text is most vulnerable is certainly during the operation, the theme of powerlessness starts to emerge in the letter from the very beginning. Burney first describes how she is separated from her family and friends in England, and then goes on to explain why she is writing her letter. She tells she is only writing the story of her illness because someone else has already made quite sure that her family will hear about it, and she wants them to learn about it from her, not from strangers. She is not, therefore, acting because she yearns to share her experience, but because she feels the situation demands it from her, and she has no power to change this. After this adapting to the circumstances, begins the story of her real, deep feeling of powerlessness, starting with doctors examining her body.
In her essay ”'This Breast -It's Me'; Fanny Burney's Mastectomy and the Defining Gaze”, Heidi Kaye presents and interesting and convincing idea, that Burney resist seeing a doctor because she feels uncomfortable about a male doctor examining her. ”When she finally does agree to the visit of her first doctor, a physician rather than a surgeon, Dr Jouart, she does not seem to be physically examined by him, but only told him her case story, ” Kaye writes and continues later, ”[s]he does speak of her next doctor, Mr Dubois, as talking of coming to see her again, so it seems more likely that he actually examined her” (Kaye 1997, 46). Kaye also speaks of control: ”Burney's hesitanse about beeing seen can be better understood as a desire to maintain control over her inner and outer self” (Kaye 1997, 46). It seems that being examined by a doctor was not an everyday matter for a 19th centure woman, and Burney feels strongly about her chastity. But on this, as in the scene where she resist of taking her robe de chambre off before the surgery, Burney has to submit to the wishes of her husband and friends, and the orders of her doctors.
In addition to being physically revealed to the gaze of the doctors, Burney also is being defined by her diagnosis. It makes her a sick person, who has less authority of her own life and body, and who has to consult doctors and obey their advice and orders. Her illness determinates the course of the rest of her life, the operation leaving her body...