Henri "Hendrik" Conscience (3 December 1812 Antwerp - 10 September 1883 Elsene) was a Belgian
Belgians are people originating from the Kingdom of Belgium, a federal state in Western Europe.-Etymology:Belgians are a relatively "new" people...
writer. He was a pioneer in writing in Dutch after the secession from the Netherlands in 1830 left Belgium a mostly French speaking country.
He was the son of a Frenchman, Pierre Conscience, from Besançon
Besançon , is the capital and principal city of the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. It had a population of about 237,000 inhabitants in the metropolitan area in 2008...
, 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. Hendrik's mother was a Fleming, Cornelia Balieu. When, in 1815, the French abandoned Antwerp after the Congress of Vienna
Congress of Vienna
The Congress of Vienna was a conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, and held in Vienna from September, 1814 to June, 1815. The objective of the Congress was to settle the many issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars,...
, Pierre Conscience stayed behind. 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 unsellable 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 being destroyed. Soon after his second marriage Pierre took a violent dislike of 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
Venlo is a municipality and a city in the southeastern Netherlands, next to the German border. It is situated in the province of Limburg.In 2001, the municipalities of Belfeld and Tegelen were merged into the municipality of Venlo. Tegelen was originally part of the Duchy of Jülich centuries ago,...
. Here Pierre bought a little farm with a rather large garden.. Here, while their father was buying ships in faraway harbours, the boys would spend weeks, sometimes months, with their stepmother.
At the age of seventeen Hendrik left his father's house to become a tutor in Antwerp and to continue his studies, which were soon interrupted by the Revolution of 1830
Revolution of 1830
The Revolution of 1830 can be:* The July Revolution in France leading to a constitutional monarchy lasting until the revolutions of 1848* The Belgian Revolution in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands leading to the creation of Belgium...
. He volunteered in the Belgian revolutionary army, served at Turnhout and fought the Dutch near Oostmalle, Geel, Lubbeek and Louvain. After the eight days' war of 1831 he stayed in army barracks at Dendermonde
Dendermonde is a Belgian city and municipality located in the Flemish province of East Flanders in the Denderstreek. The municipality comprises the city of Dendermonde proper and the towns of Appels, Baasrode, Grembergen, Mespelare, Oudegem, Schoonaarde, and Sint-Gillis-bij-Dendermonde...
, becoming a non-commissioned officer, rising to the rank of sergeant-major. In 1837 he left the service and returned to civilian life. Having been thrown in with young men of all walks of life he became an observer of their habits. He considered writing in the Flemish language although at the time that language was believed to be unfit for literature as French was the language of the educated and the ruling class.
Although nearby, across the river Scheldt
The Scheldt is a 350 km long river in northern France, western Belgium and the southwestern part of the Netherlands...
, the Netherlands had a thriving literature that was centuries old, written in a language hardly different from Flemish spoken in Belgium, the Belgian prejudice towards Flemish persisted. French was the language used by the politicians who founded Belgium in 1830. It was this language that had been chosen to be Belgium's national language. It was spoken by the ruling class in Belgium. Nothing had been written in Flemish for years when Belgium's independence became a fact in 1831, separating Belgium and her Flemish provinces from the Netherlands. The divide between the two languages was no more to be bridged. It was therefore almost with the foresight of a prophet that Conscience in 1830 wrote: "I do not know why but I find in the Flemish language 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 a series of vignettes set during the Dutch Revolt
The Dutch Revolt or the Revolt of the Netherlands This article adopts 1568 as the starting date of the war, as this was the year of the first battles between armies. However, since there is a long period of Protestant vs...
, with the title In 't Wonderjaar 1566 (published Ghent
Ghent is a city and a municipality located in the Flemish region of Belgium. It is the capital and biggest city of the East Flanders province. The city started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Lys and in the Middle Ages became one of the largest and richest cities of...
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 schoolfriend found him in a street and took him home. Soon people of standing, amongst them the painter Wappers
Egide Charles Gustave Wappers
Egide Charles Gustave, Baron Wappers is best known as the Belgian painter Gustave Wappers, while his oeuvre is also reckoned Flemish...
, showed interest in the unfortunate young man. Wappers even gave him a suit of clothes and eventually presented him to King Leopold, who ordered the Wonderjaar to be added to the libraries of every Belgian school. But it was with the patronage of Leopold I
Leopold I of Belgium
Leopold I was from 21 July 1831 the first King of the Belgians, following Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. He was the founder of the Belgian line of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha...
that Conscience published his second book, 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 novel
De Leeuw van Vlaanderen
De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (book)
De Leeuw van Vlaanderen is a historical book written by the Flemish writer Hendrik Conscience in 1838. The book tells the story of the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302...
(: The Lion of Flanders), which still holds its place as one of his masterpieces, the influence of which extended far beyond the literary sphere.
During the 19th century, many nationalist-minded writers, poets and artists in various European countries were turning characters from their countries' respective histories and myths into romantic
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...
An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity and in certain Eastern Catholic churches...
s of national pride. With "The Lion of Flanders" Conscience did this successfully with the character of Robert of Bethune
Robert III of Flanders
Robert III of Flanders , also called Robert of Bethune and nicknamed The Lion of Flanders , was Count of Nevers 1273–1322 and Count of Flanders 1305–1322.-History:...
, the eldest son of Guy de Dampierre, count of Flanders, crusader and, most importantly from Conscience's point of view, a prominent protagonist in a struggle to maintain the authonomy of Flanders against great odds.
Historians have accused Conscience of historical inaccuracies, for example depicting his hero as having taken part in the Battle of the Golden Spurs
Battle of the Golden Spurs
The Battle of the Golden Spurs, known also as the Battle of Courtrai was fought on July 11, 1302, near Kortrijk in Flanders...
. He had not. It was also pointed out that in reality The Lion of Flanders did not speak Dutch
Dutch is a West Germanic language and the native language of the majority of the population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname, the three member states of the Dutch Language Union. Most speakers live in the European Union, where it is a first language for about 23 million and a second...
. Neither did his father, the count of Flanders Guy de Dampierre. Yet Robert of Bethune, "The Lion of Flanders", is still presented as a symbol of Flemish pride and freedom, which is due to the romantic, albeit incorrect portrayal by Conscience. Conscience's portrayal also inspired De Vlaamse Leeuw
De Vlaamse Leeuw
De Vlaamse Leeuw is the official anthem of Flanders, a region in the federal kingdom of Belgium.-Composition:...
(Flemish: "The Flemish Lion"), the long-time unofficial anthem of Flemish nationalists and only recently officially recognised as the national anthem
A national anthem is a generally patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions and struggles of its people, recognized either by a nation's government as the official national song, or by convention through use by the people.- History :Anthems rose to prominence...
Flanders is the community of the Flemings but also one of the institutions in Belgium, and a geographical region located in parts of present-day Belgium, France and the Netherlands. "Flanders" can also refer to the northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp...
The Lion of Flanders was followed by How to become a Painter (1843), What a Mother can Suffer (1843), Siska van Roosemaei (1844), Lambrecht Hensmans (1847), Jacob van Artevelde
Jacob van Artevelde
Jacob van Artevelde , also known as the Wise Man and the Brewer of Ghent, was a Flemish statesman and political leader....
(1849), and The Conscript
The Conscript is a 1974 Belgian drama film directed by Roland Verhavert. It was entered into the 24th Berlin International Film Festival.-Cast:* Jan Decleir - Jan Braems* Ansje Beentjes - Katrien* Gaston Vandermeulen - Grootvader...
(1850). During these years he lived a varied existence, for some thirteen months being a gardener in a country house, but eventually 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 financially independent to some extent. His ideas however, began to be generally accepted. At a congress in Ghent in 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 new contribution by Conscience was welcomed as an honor to Belgium.
In 1845 Conscience was made a knight of the Order of Leopold. Writing in Flemish had ceased to be seen as vulgar. On the contrary, the language of the common man became almost fashionable and Flemish literature began to thrive.
In 1845 Conscience published a History of Belgium on request by King Leopold I. He then returned to picturing Flemish home-life which would form the most valuable portion of his work. He was by now at the zenith of his genius, and Blind Rosa (1850), Rikketikketak (1851), The Decayed Gentleman (1851), and The Miser
L'Avare is a 1668 five-act satirical comedy by French playwright Molière. Its title is usually translated as The Miser when the play is performed in English....
(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 translations of his books began to appear in English, French, German and Italian, his fame becoming universal. In 1867 the position of keeper of the Royal Belgian museums was created and given to him at King Leopold's demand. He continued to produce novels with great regularity, his publications amounting to nearly eighty in number. He was by now the most eminent of the citizens of Antwerp. His 70th birthday was celebrated with public festivities. After a long illness he died at his house in Antwerp. He was given an official funeral and buried at the Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp, his tomb now being a monument in honour of the great writer.
The portraits of Conscience show him with a long smooth hairdo, contemplative dark eyes under heavy brows, a pointed nose, and a humorous broad mouth; in later life he wore a long white beard. Whether the historical romances of Conscience will retain the enormous popularity they enjoyed is less certain. More likely his novels depicting the genre-painter of life in his days will. In spite of rhetorical use of soliloquizing and a key of sentiment often pitched too high for today's taste, the stories written by 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.