During his near decade (1826 - 1833) of wanderings through Europe with his wife and children, American author James Fenimore Cooper (1789 -1851) repeatedly tried to explain in print Europe to Americans and Americans to Europeans. Cooper and family had set sail for England immediately after publication of his best known work, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS -- which made him world famous. The author remained in Europe from 1826 to 1833, writing a series of novels, political tracts and five travelogues partially aimed at making Europe better known to his fellow countrymen. In Paris became a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington's old companion in arms. THE HEADSMAN was the last novel written by Cooper in Europe.
The novel begins around the year 1730 at 372 meters above sea level on the docks of Geneva at the southern end of Lake Leman (Lake Geneva) -- Western Europe's largest fresh water lake. A varied cast of passengers takes ship for the normally brief, tranquil sail to the other end of the lake at Vevey. All or some passengers are intending to witness a street festival held there every five or six years called (the novel's subtitle) THE ABBAYE DES VIGNERONS (literally Abbey of the Wine Producers). One of those passengers is traveling to witness his daughter's wedding. He hopes to remain incognito. But rumor is afoot among the disgusted passangers that the Headsman (public executioner by beheading) of the Swiss Canton of Bern is trying to sail with them. Before novel's end, his child has been publicly revealed as offspring of both a headsman (Balthazar of Bern) and another headsman's daughter. Her fiance has repudiated her and raced off for Italy over the Great Saint Bernard pass. Near the famous monastery of Saint Bernard the young man is found brutally stabbed to death and the Headsman is discovered seemingly hiding near the corpse. A trial is held at the monastery to discover the murderer.
In the Introduction to THE HEADSMAN, or, THE ABBAYES DES VIGNERONS, James Fenimore Cooper, who was very familiar with the Swiss-Italian setting and the street festival of Vevey, is unusually clear what he had him mind for his book:
"Within this setting (Lake Geneva and the surrounding Alps) is contained one of the most mafnificent pictures that Nature ever drew, and he bethought him of the human actions, passions, and interests, of which it might have been the scene. ... he imagined a fragment of life passed between these grand limits ... within the immediate presence of the majesty of the Creator. He bethought him of the analogies that exist between inanimate nature and our own wayward inequalities; of the fearful admixture of good and evil of which we are composed; of the manner in which the best betray their submission to the devlis ..."
And Fenimore Cooper delivers as promised.
The novel begins in a relative lowland below the high Alps with a fearsome storm on Lake Leman. And it ends with a mid-autumn blizzard at 2469 meters high in the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy. Descriptions of sublime scenery abound. There are hidden identities: of Balthazar's son who loves a Swiss German nobleman's daughter and of a ruler of northern Italy and of another angry young man, Maso, who will claim to be the great Italian's son. There is a colorful street festival, allegedly dating back to Bacchus, celebrating Swiss vintners. There is vengeance, robbery, smuggling and a murder mystery. The smug, arrogant never changing tiered politics of Switzerland and Italy are contrasted with the simple love of equality in the USA. Catholics debate Lutherans and Calvinists about grace and forgiveness, while bonds of friendship unite men of warring Faiths. There is even a mystery as to the year in which the novel takes place. Characters are unforgettable and, as Cooper promised, bad men show moments of heroic goodness, while lofty minded Christians wrestle with ignoble prejudices.