Fanny Burney wrote one of the most courageous pieces of work I’ve ever encountered

As presenter of Woman’s Hour I’m no stranger to the history of women who, over the centuries, have risen above the prejudice imposed on their gender, and whose lives began to be uncovered in the latter part of the 20th century as women’s studies became an acceptable subject for academic research. But nowhere could I find a book which gathered together a group of those who had most excited my interest and admiration.

Then came reports in November 2015 that it was proposed to cut feminism from the politics A-level syllabus. The suffragette movement was to be squeezed into a section on “pressure groups” and only one political thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft, was to be mentioned by name. My son had come home some years earlier with his text book for 20th-century British history and recognised (thank goodness) that something was missing. “Mum,” he said, “I don’t think this is right. I can’t find any women in this book except half a page on the suffragettes.” That’s my boy!

Then I came across Thomas Carlyle’s “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, written in 1840, and, in Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys (1997), “It’s important to remember that men built the planes, fought the wars, laid the railroad tracks, invented the cars, built the hospitals, invented the medicines and sailed the ships that made it all happen.”

It became vital to bring together a group of female warriors, poets, playwrights, painters, composers, campaigners, scientists, engineers, doctors and politicians for the benefit of all those young people who need to know that the history of Britain is the biography of great men and women.

Fanny Burney is one such woman. Though certainly not the most accomplished novelist in the canon of English literature, she was successful in her day, often writing in her fiction about the difficulties faced by women in getting an education, taking control of their own lives and surviving the social whirl of the nouveau riche. Virginia Woolf called her “the mother of English fiction”.

Her diaries are phenomenal, giving us the most gossipy and often scandalous details of life in literary and intellectual London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was at the centre of a circle that included Dr Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell. Her diaries give a far more intimate portrait of Dr Johnson than do those of the man she referred to rather scathingly as Bozzy.

She also wrote one of the most courageous pieces of work I’ve ever encountered. I read it around the time I, like so many 21 century women, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Burney’s is the first example I’ve come across of a woman writing about so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and a mastectomy. Even today, when I wrote about my experience, it was regarded as a brave thing to do, though we no longer have any squeamish concerns about speaking the words “breast” and “cancer” out loud. It was generally deemed to be helpful, making it clear that there’s no shame attached to the diagnosis and it can be endured and survived.

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