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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hendrik Conscience (1812–1883)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905)
 
HENRI CONSCIENCE (not Hendrik Conscience, as commonly written, for though the great romancist was a Fleming by maternal descent and by native sympathy, he was the son of a naturalized Frenchman and was christened Henri), who is popularly known as the Walter Scott of Flanders, is with the exception of Georges Eekhoud the one Belgian author who has succeeded in gaining the ear of Europe. There is not one of the leading languages, and few of the less important, into which one or more of his books have not been translated: indeed, his works are to be found complete or all but complete in French, German, Norwegian, and English. One story for example, ‘Rikke-Tikke-Tak,’ has not only been rendered into every European tongue, but has been paraphrased to such an extent that variants of it occur, in each instance as an indigenous folk-tale, in every land, from Great Britain in the west to India and even to China in the east.  1
  To-day to our changed tastes the tales of Conscience may seem somewhat insipid,—that is, in translation; for the style of the original is characterized by singular verve and charm,—but there must be a radical appeal in writings which have reached the home-circle readers of Belgium and Holland, of Germany and of Scandinavia, of France and England and America. Born in Antwerp in 1812, of a French father and a Flemish mother, the childhood of the novelist-to-be was passed during the French domination in the Netherlands. While a youth, he watched with eager intelligence the growing pressure of the Dutch yoke upon Flanders, the restless vicissitudes and memorable events which culminated in the revolution of 1830 and the separation of Belgium from the neighboring country. This uprising of the Flemish people was followed by a re-birth of Flemish literature, of which the informing spirit was Henri Conscience. Thitherto, the young writers of his day modeled themselves upon the then all-potent romantic school of literature in France; moreover, without exception they wrote in French, in accordance with the all-but universal prejudice that Flemish was merely a patois used only by the vulgar people. Although Conscience’s first literary efforts—martial songs and poems—were written in French, he exclaimed in 1830, when he was only a youth of eighteen, and with prophetic insight:—“I confess I find in the real Flemish something indescribably romantic, mysterious, profound, energetic, even savage. If ever I gain the power to write, I shall throw myself head over ears into Flemish literature.”  2
  The little Henri was a cripple till his seventh year, and the child’s mother was wont to amuse him by the narration of wonderful tales of fairies and angels. Later he passed his time in reading forgotten books that were stowed away in the garret, or in exercising his creative faculties in inventing local stories for his admiring companions. At his mother’s death his father removed to a lonely spot a mile from the old Antwerp wall, and here was first aroused in the boy the warm love of nature that is so strongly marked in all his writings. After acting as assistant master for two years at Delin College, he in 1830 joined the Belgian patriots as a volunteer. During the six years of his service in the country he gained an insight not only into the beauties of nature, but into the lives and feelings of the Flemish peasantry, into their manners and customs; he grew intimate with the gentle nobility of their character, which underlies the stern melancholy of their outward disposition. Conscience’s first important work was written in 1836—after the cessation of the war—to gain him admission to the Olijftak (Olive Branch), a literary club of young enthusiasts. ‘Het Wonder Jaar’ (1566) was written in Flemish, and was published in Ghent in 1837. This historical romance, full of color and rich in dramatic incident, gave the death-blow to the existing didactic prose and poetry, and was the foundation-stone on which arose the new Flemish school of literature. Pierre Conscience, however, saw his son’s partisanship in the Flemish literary movement with such displeasure that eventually the young man had to leave home altogether. His friend Wappers, the eminent painter, procured him a small appointment in the department of political archives, which however he lost, owing to a violent political speech. A funeral oration at the tomb of a director of the Antwerp Academy was the indirect means of his gaining a post in the offices of the Academy, where he remained till 1855. In 1857 he was appointed to the local administration of Courtrai; and in 1868 the Belgian government conferred on him the title of Conservateur des Musées Royaux de Peinture et de Sculpture, a guardianship held by him until his death in 1883.  3
  Conscience’s literary career divides itself into two periods, and shows him as historical romancist and as a writer of novels and short tales. The success of ‘Het Wonder Jaar’ inspired him to a second venture, and in 1858 he published his ‘De Leeuw van Vlaenderen’ (The Lion of Flanders), an undertaking which despite its subsequent fame brought the author six francs for net profit! He writes of himself that “the enthusiasm of my youth and the labors of my manhood were rooted in my love for my country.” To raise Flanders was to him a holy aim. France threatened Flemish freedom: therefore he wrote his two finest historical novels, those which depict the uprising of the Flemings against French despotism, ‘The Lion of Flanders’ and ‘The Peasants’ War.’  4
  From the literary point of view the second book is superior to its predecessor; the plot is not so closely linked to history, and though there is less regard to historical accuracy, the story gains more in dramatic unity. As a historical novelist Conscience does not belong to the school of realism and archæology: in a word, he pertains to the school of Walter Scott, not to that of Gustave Flaubert. He writes of himself, “In Holland my works have met with the same favor from Catholics and Lutherans alike;” yet his Catholic predilections have in many instances impaired his historical accuracy, and even deprived his brilliant, vivid ‘History of Belgium’ of scientific value.  5
  To his second period belong his stories, in which he directs his powers to the task of social regeneration, and of painting the life of his own day as he saw it around him. In such novels as ‘De Gierigaerd’ (The Miser), ‘De Arme Edelman’ (The Poor Nobleman), he resolved “to apply the glowing steel to the cankered wounds of which society is dying.” He describes the qualities which equipped him for his task when he says, “I am one whom God endowed at least with moral energy and with a vast instinct of affection.” It is however in the tales of Flemish peasant life,—‘Rikke-Tikke-Tak,’ ‘How Men Become Painters,’ ‘What a Mother Can Suffer,’ ‘The Happiness of Being Rich,’ etc.,—that the author’s exquisite style shows itself at its finest. There is nothing in the conception of the stories to show great inventive talent; but the execution, the way in which these simple things are recounted, is of the highest artistic excellence. In the matter of style his dual nationality proved an advantage; for to the homely vigor of the Teuton he added the gracefulness, the sobriety, the sense of measure and proportion, which are peculiar to the best French prose. Georges Eckhoud, his celebrated fellow-countryman, says of him:—“In simplicity of form, coupled with the intensity of the idea expressed, lies the eloquence of this Flemish author’s tales. Thus is explained the popularity of that delicate casket to the furthest ends of the earth, to the simplest as well as to the most cultivated circles…. The work of Conscience is like a sociable country-house, a place where men can regain the simplicity which they had lost through cheating and deception.”  6
  No better summing-up of the writings of Henri Conscience can be given than that penned by himself in his biographical notes:—
          “I write my books to be read by the people. I have always made the intellectual development and education of the ignorant my aim…. I have sketched the Flemish peasant as he appeared to me. I drew him calm, peaceable, religious, patriotic, attached to his traditions and opposed somewhat vehemently to all innovations; in short, as he appeared to me at that period of my life in 1830, when, hungry and sick, I enjoyed hospitality and the tenderest care amongst them. I have never inspired my heroes with the poetic glamour for which I have been reproached; it is they who inspired me. And then a man may dwell by preference on the defective side and the coarseness of the laborer, may sketch him as the slave of drunkenness and animal passion. I shall not deny the picturesqueness of this work. But between that and the admission of my delusion there is a wide margin. My neighbor’s heroes are not necessarily mine, nor do I see them in the same light. People are constantly discussing whether he who paints things in their darkest colors, or he who sees all in a materialistic light, or he who presents everything in its happiest form,—whether he who takes a subjective or an objective point of view,—is right. All I know is,—and it is my settled conviction,—that a conscientious writer is never wrong; and I believe myself to be conscientious.”
  7
  This is a frank, manly, and honest pronouncement, and will surely be admitted as such even by those who may not care either for the matter or manner, the method or the literary principles, of Henri Conscience. Perhaps the best commentary is, that after a European success ranking only after that of Scott, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, and Hans Andersen, Henri Conscience is still (thirteen years after his death at an advanced age) a name of European repute; is still, in his own country, held in highest honor and affection.  8
 
 
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