Introduction to The Headsman (1833)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Arrival at Lake Geneva [quotation] in 1832; at Vevey; sailing on Lake Geneva [quotation]; Vevey wine-growers’ festival and song; this festival and the feudal Berne custom of an hereditary executioner mingled in the plot of The Headsman.

Pages and Pictures, pp. 264-268

Contents: THE HEADSMAN. — Lake of Geneva — Vevey — Mountains of Savoy — Jean Descloux — Abbaye des Vignerons — Ranz des Vaches — Extract, Bruno and Nettuno.

[264] A SECOND excursion to Switzerland was made by the American author in the summer of 1832. The shores of the Lake of Geneva were on this occasion the selected goal:

“There lay the Leman, broad, blue, and tranquil, with its surface dotted by sails, or overshadowed by grand mountains; its shores varying from the impending precipice to the sloping and verdant lawn; the solemn, mysterious, and glen-like valley of the Rhone; the castles, towns, villages, hamlets, and towers, with all the smiling acclivities loaded with vines, villas, and churches; the remoter pastures, out of which rose the brown châletslike subdued bas-reliefs, and the background of Dents, peaks, and glaciers. Taking it all together, it is one of the most ravishing views of an earth that is only too lovely for its evil-minded tenants — a world that bears about it, in every lineament, the impression of its divine Creator!

“One of our friends used to tell an anecdote of the black servant of a visitor to Niagara, who could express his delight, on seeing the falls, in no other way than by peals of laughter; and — perhaps I ought to hesitate to confess it — I actually imitated the negro, as this glorious view broke suddenly upon me. Mine, however, was a laugh of triumph, for I discovered that it was still possible to awaken enthusiasm within me, by the sight of an admirable nature. Our first resolution was to pass a month in this beautiful region. Pointing to a building that stood a thousand feet below us, on a little grassy knoll, washed by the lake, [265] and which had the quaint appearance of a tiny château of the middle ages, we claimed it at once as the very spot suited for the temporary residence of your scenery-hunters. Nothing could possibly suit us better; and we went down the descent amid vineyards and cottages, not building ‘castles in the air,’ but peopling one in a valley. That was to be the house, if it could be had for love or money — or if the thing, in other words, were practicable.” James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine [originally published as Sketches of Switzerland, Part Second (1836)] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), Letter XVII, p. 168]

Unfortunately, the little château had degenerated into a mere coarse farmhouse, scarcely habitable. “Finally, we were compelled to take refuge in a furnished house, Mon Repos, which stands quite near the lake, and in a retired corner of the place; and in less than twenty-four hours after entering Vevey, we had set up our household gods, and were to be reckoned among those who boiled their pot in the commune. One of the first measures, after taking possession of Mon Repos, was to secure a boat. This was soon done. Harbor, strictly speaking, Vevey has none, though it has the beginning of a mole, scarcely serving to shelter a skiff. The crafts in use on the lake are large, two-masted boats, having decks much broader than their true beam, and which carry most of their freight above-board. The sails are strictly neither latine nor lug, but sufficiently like the former to be picturesque, especially in the distance. These vessels are not required to make good weather, as they invariably run for the land when it blows, unless the wind happen to be fair, and sometimes even then. Nothing can be more primitive than the outfit of one of these barks, and yet they appear to meet the wants of the lake. * * * It is not easy to imagine a more charming acclivity than that which lies behind the town; the inclination is by no means so great as it is east or west, and admits of cultivation, and sites for hamlets, broken by inequalities and spacious natural terraces. I should think there is quite a league of this inclined plain in view from the town; it is covered with hamlets, châteaux, country houses, churches, and cottages, and in addition to its vineyards, of which there are many, it is highly beautiful from the verdure of its slopes, its orchards, and its groves of nut-trees. * * * We never tire of the Leman, but spend two or three hours every day in the boat. Sometimes we row in front of the town — which literally stands in the water in some places — musing on the quaint old walls, and listening to the lore of honest Jean Descloux, who moves two crooked oars as leisurely as a lady of the tropics utters words, but who has seen great events in his time. Sometimes even this lazy action is too much for the humor of the moment, and we are satisfied with drifting along the shore, for there is generally current enough to carry us the whole length of Vevey in half-an-hour. Occasionally we are tossed about like an egg-shell, the winds at a distance soon throwing this part of the sheet into commotion. Per[266]haps the greatest charm in the scenery of Vevey is the coast of Savoy; immediately opposite the town is a range of magnificent rocks, rising some four or five thousand feet above the surface of the water. In general these precipices are nearly perpendicular, though their surfaces are broken by huge ravines that may well be termed valleys. This is the region that impends over Meillerie, St. Gingoulph, and Evian — towns or hamlets that cling to the bases of the mountains, and form, of themselves, beautiful objects, from this side of the lake. The distance from Vevey to the opposite shore, agreeably to the authority of old John, our boatman, is about five miles, though the great purity of the atmosphere, and the height of the land, make it appear less. The summit of the rocks of Savoy are broken into the most fantastical forms, beautifully and clearly drawn, while they are quite irregular and without design. No description can give you an accurate idea of their beauty, for I know nothing else in nature to compare them to. As they lie nearly south of us, I cannot account for the unusual glow of the atmosphere beyond them, at every clear sunset, except from the reflection of the glaciers; Mont Blanc lying in that direction, at the distance of about fifty miles, though invisible. The effect of the outline of these rocks at, or after, sunset, relieved by a soft, golden sky, is not only one of the finest sights in Switzerland, but, in its way, it is just the most perfect spectacle I have ever beheld. It is not so apt to extort sudden admiration as the rosy tints and spectral hues of the High Alps at the same hour; but it wins on you, in the way the lovely shadows of the Apennines grow on the affections, and so far from tiring or becoming satisfied with their view, each successive evening would seem to bring greater delight than the last. You may get some idea of what I mean by imagining vast piles, outlined and drawn in a way that no art can equal, standing out huge, and dark, and grand, in high relief, blending sublimity with a bewitching softness, against a sky whose light is slowly passing from the glow of fiery gold to the mildest tints of evening. I scarcely know when this scene is most to be admired; when the rocks appear distinct and brown, showing their material, and the sky is burnished, or when the first are merely dark masses, on whose surface nothing is visible, and the void beyond is just pregnant with sufficient light to reveal their exquisite forms. Perhaps this is the perfection of the scene, for the gloom of the hour throws a noble mystery over all. No dilettantiwere ever more punctual at the opening of the orchestra than we are punctual at this exhibition, which, very much like a fine and expressive harmony, grows upon us at each repetition. A11 this end of the lake — as we float lazily before the town, with the water like a mirror, the acclivity behind the town gradually darkening upward under the retiring light, the remote Alpine pastures just throwing out their chalets, the [267] rocks of Savoy, the sublime and mysterious glen of the Rhone, with the glacier of Mont Velan in its depths, raising a white peak into the broad day long after evening has shadowed every object below — forms the most perfect natural picture I have ever beheld. You may easily imagine how greatly we enjoy all this. Jean and his boat have been put in requisition nearly every evening since our arrival, and the old fellow has dropped so readily into our humors, that his oars rise and fall in a way to produce a melancholy ripple, and little else. The sympathy between us is perfect, and I have almost fancied that his oars are growing daily more crooked and picturesque.” [Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, Letter XVII, pp. 170-171, 172; Letter XIX, pp. 183-185]

Gleaning, as all reading travellers do, many lesser historical details, which give something of a peculiar coloring to the annals of every town on old Europe’s soil, Mr. Cooper’s fancy was pleased with the account of a holiday festival, celebrated at Vevey in past ages, and still kept up, at intervals, by the good people of the borough. This is called the Abbaye des Vignerons — the great holiday of the vine-dressers — a gay and motley scene, partaking largely of the carnival spirit; blended, however, with something of the better feelings of the harvest-home. There were shepherds and shepherdesses, gaily costumed and garlanded, trooping onward with rustic dance and song — the last echoing many a wild sound heard amid Alpine pastures; there were your aproned gardeners, armed with rake and spade — their sweethearts bearing on the head baskets filled with fruits and flowers — all uniting in a dance, à la ronde, as they reached the principal point of the procession, singing, meanwhile, songs of their own; there were reapers, mowers, and gleaners, all in quaint and picturesque array, moving onward to rustic chant and pipe; there were your herdsmen and dairymaids, in Alpine costume, with blended garlands, from mount and meadow, timing their steps to horn and cowbell — singing in chorus the heart-stirring Ranz des Vaches, whose wild notes were first breathed amid Alpine echoes:

“Lé zermailli dè Colombetté “The cowherds of the Alps
Dè bon matin, se san léhà — At an early hour arose,
Ha, ah! Ha, ah! Ha, ah! Ha, ah!
Liauba! Liauba! Liauba! Liauba!
Por taria! In order to milk.
“Venidè toté “Come all of you,
Bilantz et nairé Black and white,
Rodz et motailé Red and dappled,
Dzjouvan et etro Old and young;
Dezò ou tzetiano Under this oak
Io vo tario I will milk you;
Dezo ou treimblo Under this poplar
Io ïe triudzo, Let me press you.
Liauba! Liauba! Liauba! Liauba!
Por taria!” In order to milk!”

[268] The concluding scene of the procession was always a rustic wedding; the bride being dowered — as was usual at many a great festival of olden time — by the lord and lady of the manor: the wedding-train, bride and groom, parents and friends, lord and lady, the wedding-gifts, the wardrobe and household gear — aye, the very broom and spindle, with a mimic cottage, all figuring in the long and quaint array.

This picturesque local festival the American author determined to introduce into a tale, whose scenes should be laid on the Lake of Geneva and the Pass of St. Bernard. The chief incident of the plot was taken from one of those oppressive laws of feudal times, which, from their inherent injustice, he held in abhorrence; in the canton of Berne, before the changes of the last century, the odious office of executioner, or headsman, was rendered obligatory upon one family, to be inherited, like a curse — not natural, but arbitrary — not for three or four generations only, but so long as that family should exist. Upon this fact the whole plot of the Swiss tale turns; the efforts of the hapless father and mother to save their innocent son from the life of ignominy impending over him by law, interwoven with other incidents connected with the holiday festival of the Abbaye des Vignerons, make up the pathetic and picturesque interest of the book. The opening pages of the narrative are given, the account of the festival itself being too long for insertion.

Excerpt: “The Headsman” [James Fenimore Cooper, The Headsman [1833] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1859), Chapter 1, pp. 9-16.