Hendrik Conscience (born December 3, 1812 in Antwerp – died September 10, 1883 in Antwerp) was a Flemish writer. He was a pioneer in writing in Dutch after the secession from the Netherlands in 1830 left Belgium a mostly French speaking country.
Although he invariably signed his name Hendrik, his baptismal name was Henri. He was the son of a Frenchman, Pierre Conscience, from Besançon, who had been chef de timonerie in the navy of Napoleon Bonaparte, and who was appointed under-harbourmaster at Antwerp in 1811, when that city formed part of France. Hendriks mother was a Fleming, Cornelia Balieu. When, in 1815, the French abandoned Antwerp after the Congress of Vienna, they left Pierre Conscience behind them. He was a very eccentric person, and he took up the business of buying and breaking-up worn-out vessels, of which the port of Antwerp was full after the peace.
The child grew up in an old shop stocked with marine stores, to which the father afterwards added a collection of unsaleable books; among them were old romances which inflamed the fancy of the child.
His mother died in 1820, and the boy and his younger brother had no other companion than their grim and somewhat sinister father. In 1826 Pierre Conscience married again, this time a widow much younger than himself, Anna Catherina Bogaerts.
Hendrik had long before this developed an insatiable passion for reading, and revelled all day long among the ancient, torn and dusty tomes which passed through the garret of The Green Corner on their way to destruction. Soon after his second marriage Pierre took a violent dislike to the town, sold the shop, and retired to the Kempen region which Hendrik Conscience so often describes in his books, the desolate flat land that stretches between Antwerp and Venlo. Here Pierre bought a little farm, with a great garden round it, and here, while their father was buying ships in distant havens, the boys would spend weeks, and even months, with no companion but their stepmother.
At the age of seventeen Hendrik left the paternal house in the Kempen region to become a tutor in Antwerp, and to prosecute his studies, which were soon broken in upon by the Revolution of 1830. He volunteered as a private in the new Belgian army, and served in barracks at Venlo, and afterwards at Dendermonde, until 1837, when he retired with the grade of sergeant-major. Thrown in this way with Flemings of every class, and made a close observer of their mental habits, the young man formed the idea of writing in the despised idiom of the country, an idiom which was then considered too vulgar to be spoken, and much less written in, by educated, Francophone Belgians.
Although, close by, across the Scheldt, the Dutch possessed a rich and honored literature, many centuries old, written in a language scarcely to be distinguished from Flemish, a foolish prejudice denied recognition to the language of the Flemish provinces of Belgium. As a matter of fact, nothing had been written in it for many years, when the separation in 1831 served to make the chasm between the nations and the languages one which could never be bridged over. It was therefore with the foresight of a prophet that Conscience wrote, in 1830: "I do not know how it is, but I confess I find in the real Flemish something indescribably romantic, mysterious, profound, energetic, even savage. If I ever gain the power to write, I shall throw myself head over ears into Flemish composition."
His poems, however, written while he was a soldier, were all in French. He received no pension when he was discharged, and going back idle to his fathers house, he determined to do the impossible, and write a Flemish book for sale. A passage in Guicciardini fired his fancy, and straightaway he wrote off that series of scenes in the Dutch War of Independence, which lives in Belgian literature under the title of In 't Wonderjaar 1566; this was published in Ghent in 1837.
His father thought it so vulgar of his son to write a book in Flemish that he turned him out of doors, and the celebrated novelist of the future started for Antwerp, with a fortune which was strictly confined to two francs and a bundle of clothes. An old schoolfellow found him in the street and took him to his home; and soon various people of position, amongst them the eminent painter Wappers, interested themselves in the brilliant and unfortunate young man. Wappers even gave him a suit of clothes, and presented him to the king, who expressed a wish, which was not immediately carried out in consequence of some red tape, that the Wonderjaar should be added to the library of every Belgian school. But it was under the patronage of Léopold I that Conscience published his second work, Fantasy, in the same year, 1837. A small appointment in the provincial archives relieved him from the actual pressure of want, and in 1838 he made his first great success with the historical romance called The Lion of Flanders, which still holds its place as one of his masterpieces. To this followed How to become a Painter (1843), What a Mother can Suffer (1843), Siska van Roosemaei (1844), Lambrecht Hensmans (1847), Jacob van Artevelde (1849), and The Conscript (1850). During these years he lived a variegated existence, for some thirteen months actually as an undergardener in a country house, but finally as secretary to the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It was long before the sale of his books--greatly praised but seldom bought--made him in any degree independent. His ideas, however, began to be generally accepted. At a Flemish congress which met at Ghent so early as 1841, the writings of Conscience were mentioned as the seed which was most likely to yield a crop of national literature. Accordingly the patriotic party undertook to encourage their circulation, and each fresh contribution from the pen of Conscience was welcomed as an honor to Belgium.
In 1845 Conscience was made a knight of the Order of Leopold. To write in Flemish had now ceased to be regarded as a proof of vulgarity; on the contrary, the tongue of the common people became almost fashionable, and Flemish literature began to live.
In 1845 Conscience published a History of Belgium, but he was well advised to return to those exquisite pictures of Flemish home-life which must always form the most valuable portion of his repertory. He was now at the height of his genius, and Blind Rosa (1850), Rikketikketak (1851), The Decayed Gentleman (1851), and The Miser (1853) rank among the most important of the long list of his novels. These had an instant effect upon more recent fiction, and Conscience had many imitators.
In 1855 the earliest translations of his tales began to appear in English, French, German and Italian, and his fame became universal. In 1867 the post of keeper of the Royal Belgian museums was created, and this important sinecure was given to Conscience. He continued to produce novels with great regularity, and his separate publications amounted at last to nearly eighty in number. He was now the most eminent of the citizens of Antwerp, and his seventieth birthday was celebrated by public festivities. After a long illness he died, in his house in Antwerp; he was awarded a public funeral and interred in the Antwerpen Schoonselhof.
The portraits of Conscience present to us long smooth hair, contemplative dark eyes under heavy brows, a pointed nose, and a humorous broad mouth; in late life he wore the ornament of a long white beard. Whether the historical romances of Conscience will retain the enormous popularity which they have enjoyed is much less than certain, but far more likely to live are the novels in which he undertook to be the genre-painter of the life of his own day. In spite of too rhetorical a use of soliloquizing, and of a key of sentiment often pitched too high for modern taste, the stories of Conscience are animated by a real spirit of genius, mildly lustrous, perhaps, rather than startlingly brilliant. Whatever glories may be in store for the literature of Flanders, Conscience is always sure of a distinguished place as its forerunner and its earliest classic.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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