The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Headswoman
The Headswoman is a short story about a female executioner, that first appeared in the literary magazine The Yellow Book in 1894. It concerns Jeanne, a young woman in an early 16th century French town, who inherits the post of headswoman. The town council are doubtful about it, but she argues persuasively her right to the job.
"My motive, gentlemen, in demanding what is my due, is a simple and (I trust) an honest one, and I desire that there should be no misunderstanding. It is my wish to be dependent on no one. I am both willing and able to work, and I only ask for what is the common right of humanity,—admission to the labour market. How many poor, toiling women would simply jump at a chance like this which fortune, by the accident of birth, lays open to me! And shall I, from any false deference to that conventional voice which proclaims this thing as ‘nice,’ and that thing as ‘not nice,’ reject a handicraft which promises me both artistic satisfaction and a competence? No, gentlemen; my claim is a small one,—only a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. But I can accept nothing less, nor consent to forgo my rights, even for any contingent remainder of possible cousinly favour!"She gets the job, and performs the task competently and cheerfully, until a setback. She has an argument with her lawyer cousin Enguerrand (next in line for the post) about a woman's suitability for the job. The next day, suffering from a headache, she takes the day off, and the council takes this as evidence of the problems of hiring a woman. Things look up, however, when she flirts with a young gentleman on the town ramparts.
But the day after that, she is surprised to find the young man is her first client for execution. The two continue their courtly flirting as he is brought to the block.
"And now, sir," said Jeanne, "if you will kindly come this way: and please to mind the step—so. Now, if you will have the goodness to kneel here—nay, the sawdust is perfectly clean; you are my first client this morning. On the other side of the block you will find a nick, more or less adapted to the human chin, though a perfect fit cannot, of course, be guaranteed in every case. So! Are you pretty comfortable?"In the nick of time, the mayor arrives and halts the execution: it's a case of mistaken identity. Jeanne is put out at the interruption to her work, and is all for carrying out the execution anyway. But she is persuaded by the arrival of Thibault, the seneschal of the local chateau: the young man is "the young Seigneur" who has just come home from his education in Paris. They make up the next day, falling in love, and she gives up the job.
"A bed of roses," replied the prisoner. "And what a really admirable view one gets of the valley and the river, from just this particular point!"
"Charming, is it not?" replied Jeanne. "I’m so glad you do justice to it. Some of your predecessors have really quite vexed me by their inability to appreciate that view. It’s worth coming here to see it. And now, to return to business for one moment,—would you prefer to give the word yourself? Some people do; it’s a mere matter of taste. Or will you leave yourself entirely in my hands?"
"Oh, in your fair hands," replied her client, "which I beg you to consider respectfully kissed once more by your faithful servant to command."
Executions continued to occur in St. Radegonde; the Radegundians being conservative and very human. But much of the innocent enjoyment that formerly attended them departed after the fair Châtelaine had ceased to officiate. Enguerrand, on succeeding to the post, wedded Clairette, she being (he was heard to say) a more suitable match in mind and temper than others of whom he would name no names. Rumour had it, that he found his match and something over; while as for temper—and mind (which she gave him in bits). But the domestic trials of high-placed officials have a right to be held sacred. The profession, in spite of his best endeavours, languished nevertheless. Some said that the scaffold lacked its old attraction for criminals of spirit; others, more unkindly, that the headsman was the innocent cause, and that Enguerrand was less fatal in his new sphere than formerly, when practising in the criminal court as advocate for the defence.The Headswoman is clearly intended as satire. Gender and the Victorian Periodical (Hilary Fraser, Judith Johnston, Stephanie Green, Cambridge University Press, 2003) has a detailed analysis of its targets, including bureaucracy and the "new woman" narrative (see pp 184-185), But Alison Prince, in Kenneth Grahame: an innocent in the Wild Wood (Allison & Busby, 1994) calls it "a somewhat maladroit offering" that "seems to have been received with baffled (or perhaps tactful silence)". It's hard to say if it works: whether the strangely upbeat tone of the whole piece is part of the joke, or a symptom of Grahame being too squeamish to tackle the gritty scenario. Peter Green, in his 1959 Kenneth Grahame, a biography, commented that:
Direct engagement stimulated his satirical sense, but put too great a strain on his delicate sensibilities. If today The Headswoman reminds us of anything, it is of a play by an author who in many ways resembles Grahame: Christopher Fry. In The Lady's not for Burning the treatment of the death motif and the ambivalent humour enshrouding it directly recall Grahame's story: there are further similarities of plot, setting, and character. It is fascinating to speculate just what would have become of Grahame's talent if he had continued to explore this field instead of abandoning it after a single experiment
As it was, The Headswoman was the nearest thing Grahame ever wrote to fiction for an adult readership.
Project Gutenberg has an HTML version of the 1928 Bodley Head edition with nice woodcut illustrations by Marcia Lane Foster.