The writer and diarist Fanny Burney enjoyed little success in her lifetime, mainly because her father discouraged her from publishing, believing it to be unfitting to a lady's reputation. So, although her play, 'The Wife Hater', was written over 200 years ago, it is only now being staged.
Burney is of interest to those of us involved in literature and medicine because her harrowing account of undergoing a mastectomy without an anaesthetic is believed to be one of the first examples of 'pathography', or biographical writing of the illness experience. The account is fascinating, not only because of its vivid description, but because of the implications the lack of anaesthesia had for communication over the makeshift operating table. Not wishing to distress his patient any further, Baron Larrey (Napoleon's surgeon) and the attending team of doctors used sign language to indicate the extent of the excision:
'... 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. Dubois 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? (“Who will hold the centre?”) - ' 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.'
The whole account speaks to contemporary ideas about 'distress management' which are still relevant today.
The play, a subversive romantic comedy, has garnered good reviews and is on at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, until 2 February.