We return to Mary Astell, with the text she added to a later edition of her Reflections upon Marriage. Now, Astell is far from the liberal saint who would get along well with contemporary feminists, or most contemporary people: she was a committed Tory, which in the 17th/18th c. context meant democracy was rubbish. But that gave her a unique look at the arguments of Locke and other Whig democrats, who arguing against tyranny tended to forget about patriarchy. The excerpt starts by her stating that everything in the book is her own work, not something that she’s read elsewhere. Her intention is not to make women rebel against their husbands, just like she doesn’t want subjects to rebel against their monarchs. But to make women actually accept the tyranny of their husbands and believe that their stupidity is wisdom, or brutality love, well, that’s something that her poor little female head can’t comprehend and probably only men can. The next excerpt explains her logic more fully: in the world of perfect people who would be guided only by their reason, there would be no struggle for power. But we are lapsed beings, and we are guided by our passions and appetites. So if we can’t make a reasonable decision about anything, there must be somebody in power who will take an arbitrary one, or otherwise the weakest or the least cunning ones will be always disadvantaged. So women, as physically weaker, should always support absolutist or monarchist government. (Is it the explanation for women voting right-wing, I wonder?) But it does not mean that husbands, “domestic governors” are smarter than other bosses; every man loves to bitch about his boss and how much smarter than him he is. And if power gives you right to rule, then every highway-man is the rightful ruler over the man he robs. So, dear Mr Locke, says Astell – she doesn’t mention him by name, but she quotes his Two Treatises – if tyranny in a state is so terrible, why are you OK with tyranny in a family? It’s even worse because instead of one tyrannical king you have 100,000 mini-tyrants. And even though a husband can’t kill his wife with impunity, he can still make her life miserable in so many ways. “If all men are born free, ho is it that all women are born slaves?” So stop condemning slavery and look at you your own family, if you please.
If people can enjoy perfect liberty in their natural state, why do they give it up? The answer is, because when everybody has equal liberty, there is no protection for one’s life, liberty and estate, which Locke calls collectively “property”. The three things missing in the state of nature are: the generally accepted law, impartial judges and effective power of executing these laws. The two powers which man has in the state of nature is to protect himself and others in his community (which, as Locke notes, should properly include all mankind, but we are degenerate and thus prone to divide ourselves into small communities); and secondly, to punish those who did damage to us or our community. When joining society, these two powers are transferred, respectively, to law and the authorities responsible for executing the law. But since the purpose of the individual transferring these powers to society is to improve one’s life, not to make it worse, the logical conclusion is that these powers should be administered by known and established laws, and not by arbitrary decrees. The laws should be put in action by impartial judges and executed effectively at home and abroad.
The section on liberty starts with the excerpts from John Locke focus on his attitudes to slavery, which are complicated, to say the least: on one hand he disliked it ethically, but on the other hand he invested in slave-trading companies. Two Treatises were written as a polemic with Robert Filmer, a conservative defender of the absolute power of the monarch. Locke argues that there are two kinds of liberty: the natural liberty, found only in state of nature, when the only law is the law of nature, and the liberty of man in society, where he is subject to laws but only such as the legislative body, established by common consent, can pass. One cannot dispense of this liberty, even if one wanted. For Locke the “law of nature” is not the Sadeian total freedom, but rather following the will of God, and hence his argument against suicide. If we mustn’t commit suicide, we mustn’t also put ourselves wholly in the power of somebody who could kill us on a whim. He makes then an argument I don’t quite understand: let’s say somebody does something punishable by death, but the person who has it in his power to administer it, chooses to make a slave out of him rather than kill him; if the slavery is too unbearable, all the enslaved person has to do is to be disobedient in order to provoke his master to punish him by death. Locke imagines slavery more as a contract, where one side promises a limited power over the enslaved, and the other obedience, one side being the “lawful conqueror” and the other a captive. Locke uses the examples from the Old Testament to argue that even among ancient Jews slavery was more like being an indentured servant (i.e. a limited-time contract) and if the servant had been maimed by their master, the contract would have ended immediately.
The worst part comes – they start cutting off the breast. Burney screams and faints and screams. I was wondering why they didn’t give her opium – it’s early 19th century and opium can be bought as freely as aspirin nowadays – but apparently opium didn’t help much against the pain so acute as when they’re cutting a piece of your body off. When the knife is withdrawn, it doesn’t end the pain, because she can actually feel cold air entering the wound. The hacking is so hard that the doctor actually has to change the hand holding the knife. Then she can hear and feel the knife scraping the bone. After the cutting is over, Dr Larrey (who performed it) asks the others whether they can see anything else that should be removed. Burney can actually feel the finger of Dubois over the spot which he thinks needs more cleaning, even though he doesn’t touch her. And then there is more cutting, and the procedure is repeated over and over again, and still Dubois finds something which needs removing. The whole operation, including bandaging, lasted about twenty minutes, but they seemed like ages. But Burney manages to withstand it, just begging the doctors to give her warning when they are about to make another cut. Finally it’s over, but she is so weak she has to be carried to bed. During the dressing of the wound Burney actually tells her doctors she pities them and indeed, it must have been a gruesome experience for them, too. The handkerchief is taken off Burney’s face and her nurse told her later that she was nearly colourless; Dr Larrey looks equally terrible, ashen-faced and smeared with blood. Her husband, and later her son are called to see her. The way Burney writes about her surgery, I think she must have suffered from some form of PTSD (and I am not the least surprised): she couldn’t speak or think about it for months, and even writing this letter, 9 months after the operation, gives her a headache.
Burney ends her letter by saying that her husband should write now his part of the story, but Genral D’Arblay says he’s unable to do it. Just reading his wife’s letter and learning about what it really was like nearly killed him, and he’s just grateful “that this more than half angel” didn’t want him to be present, because he’s sure he wouldn’t be able to withstand it anyway, I do not wish to make fun of M. D’Arblay, and it’s awfully sweet he felt so for his wife (and he a military man, so presumably used to gruesome sights), but what is exactly “more than half angel”? “Two-thirds angel” or “three-quarters angel”? He says thank heaven she is well and hopes for many days together. His wishes actually came true: Burney lived for twenty-eight years, outliving both him and their son, and dying at the age of eighty-eight.
The day of the operation comes, it is initially scheduled for 1 pm, but when the hour strikes, they get a message that Dubois is late and can’t make it until three o’clock. Burney spends miserable two hours pacing her apartment (the excerpt does not say so clearly, but it seems the operation took place at her home, as most surgeries did). She walks into the salon, shudders to see the preparations and leaves, but then forces herself to come back and have a look. She would like to write letters to her family, but at this point her arm aches too much to hold a pen, so she just writes two short notes of farewell to her husband and son, in case she wouldn’t make it. Finally the hour comes and she hears the sound of carriages on the pavement. Dr Moreau gives her some wine cordial and leaves, but before she has time to ring for her maid, he returns with six other doctors, all dressed in black. They arrange a bedstead with two old mattresses and an old sheet over it, and Burney is dismayed, because her doctor initially promised her she would be operated in an armchair. The maid and the nurses start crying and Dubois orders them to go away. Burney insists she wants them to stay, an argument ensues during which the maid and one of the nurses ran away anyway. Burney feels terribly lonely anyway, without any female friends or family members and Dubois notices it and starts to talk to her more kindly. She tells him this operation must seem very trivial to him, and he responds ambiguously, tearing a piece of paper and saying, yes, it is not much, but.. he trails off. Everybody is scared shitless, even the doctors themselves, which does not exactly inspire Burney’s confidence. They help her onto the bed and put a handkerchief over her face, but it’s thin enough for her to see a glitter of a surgical instrument and then she closes her eyes. Then there are a few moments of silence during which the doctors, as she assumes, communicate with signs as they are examining her. She hears one of them asking, who will hold this breast for me, and as she opens her eyes, she sees Dubois making signs indicating a complete mastectomy will be necessary (I guess she was led to understand it would be only a partial one. So she takes off the handkerchief, says she will do it and holding her own breast, explains the nature of her pain, which seems to originate in one place, but spreads all over her breast, hoping that this will spare her a complete surgery. The doctors listen to her attentively, but then Dubois puts the handkerchief over her face again and she again sees him making the signs indicating a full mastectomy. At this point she closes her eyes, resigned to whatever may happen.
This one ends with a bang – the famous letter about Burney’s mastectomy. I’ve read it before, so I know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it less gruesome. When I was reading it now, what struck me was how much effort everybody, but especially Burney herself, puts into making everyone around them comfortable and sparing their feelings. The additionally exacerbating factor is that the operation took place in France. Burney married a French political refugee, rather late in life, and when the Revolution was over, she accompanied her husband back to France, where he got a job with Bonaparte’s government. It was supposed to be only for a year, but then the war between France and Britain broke out, and Burney was stuck in France, far away from her extended family, to whom she was very devoted. So she states at the beginning of this letter to his sister Esther, written half a year after the surgery, that she’s writing it only because she knows the news are going to reach her family in England anyway, otherwise she would spare them any information about it at all.
So, the story goes: in August 1810 she starts to feel pain in her breast, and it’s getting worse. She says it was not that bad, but apparently it was bad enough to make her wince from time to time. Her husband, noticing it, manages to talk her into seeing a doctor, using the support of several female friends of Burney, who for a long time was insistent that it’s not necessary. The first doctor says it’s nothing serious, but the pain is getting worse, and they decide to ask M. Dubois for a second opinion. Dubois was a surgeon who had treated Burney previously, but by this time he has a super important job, being the “accoucher” (OB) to the empress. This was a top government job, because Marie Louise, for whom Napoleon divorced his first wife for the express purpose of begetting an heir, was then pregnant with the said heir. But he manages to come and see Burney when the empress was taking “a promenade”. (That’s something I don’t get – if he had to be available for the empress 24 h a day, surely she could demand his attention during a walk, too?) He examines Burney, gives her a prescription and tells her on no account to get upset, which of course makes her very nervous, especially when after leaving her he locks himself with her husband in the library for a very long time. When she calls her husband, he comes to her and tries to comfort her too, but he looks like hell and she realizes surgery is unavoidable, especially since her pain is getting worse after the visit and the drug M. Dubois prescribed doesn’t help.
After that a formal consultation between three other renowned doctors is called and they all believe a surgery is necessary. Burney bravely says she is going to submit to their opinion and one doctor at least has tears in his eyes, because he expected more resistance. At least they stop lying to her: Dubois tells her she is going to suffer a lot, Ribe tells her not to stifle he cries because that could be very bad to her, and Moreau asks her whether she screamed in labour. How could I not?, she says, to which he answers, oh, it’s alright then, which again does not exactly comfort her. They decide not to tell her husband when the operation is going to take place until it’s over, and they don’t want to tell her either, but she bargains with them and finally gets the assurance of four hours’ notice.
In 1785 Burney accepted, with some hesitation, the job of “the Keeper of the Robes” at the royal court and in this excerpt she describes her meeting with the king George III, then in recovery from his bout of madness. (I was dismayed to see that the editors of the NAEL still claim he was suffering from porphyria, a theory made popular by Alan Bennet’s play, but far from proven, and increasingly doubted by modern historians.) She writes that she has to take walks because her doctor absolutely insisted she must and I feel again sorry for her: unless she hated walks (which I doubt), I get the feeling she has to justify the fact that she can have some me-time. Anyway, she always expressly asked Dr Willis where the king was going to be, and on this day he told her they were going to be in Richmond, so she said she was going to be in Kew and also asked Dr Willis, should they meet by any chance, not to acknowledge her presence in any way but let her run away. She does it not only because she is afraid of the mad king, but also because his doctors wanted to keep him in isolation. But as the bad luck would have it, she does meet the king and starts to run away, while the king notices her and pursues her, crying “Miss Burney”. The description takes so long you’d think they ran a marathon, although I’m sure it felt to poor Burney like a marathon. Finally the doctors themselves (they were two Willis brothers) ask her to stop, because the king will get too heated running after her. She stops and decides to face the king bravely, even though she trembles. He asks her why she ran away, to which she doesn’t have a good answer, but then much to her shock and surprise he embraces her and kisses her on the cheek. Burney thought he was going to crash her when he spread out his arms, but his doctors, who didn’t know him before he became ill, only smiled, very pleased at this display of affection, not knowing how out of character it was. The king, as it turns out, is quite of sound mind: they have a nice stroll during which he asks Burney about her father (a renowned historian of music), tells her how Handel said about him “While that boy lives, my music will never want a protector”, tries to hum a few themes from Handel’s oratorios, and mentions his and Burney’s mutual friend Mrs Delany (through whom Burney actually got her job at the court); the memory of hers brings tears to his eyes. Burney notices he does have a tendency to ramble a bit, but otherwise he seems perfectly OK and clearly overjoyed by seeing one of his former friends, from whom he has been isolated for so long.