From An Claidheamh Soluis, September 23, 1905.
In the year 1811 there was serving in Napoleon’s navy as chef de timonerie one Pierre Conscience, a native of Besançon. By one of those “chances” which alter the destinies of nations he was in that year appointed harbour-master of Antwerp, then a city of the French Empire. Here he married a Flemish wife – one Cornelia Bahen – and here in the next year was born to him a soon whom he named Henri. When the French withdrew from the Netherlands in 1815, Pierre remained on in Antwerp. His occupation as harbour-master was, of course, gone, and by way of earning a livelihood he commenced to buy and break up old vessels with a view to selling their fittings.
As a side-line to this business he opened a small shop which he stocked with marine stores and unsaleable books. In these surroundings grew up young Henri – or Hendrik as he afterwards learned to call himself. One figures the boy with his pale and delicate features, French rather than Flemish in type, his dark, contemplative eyes, and his “long smooth hair,” – one figures him day-dreaming in that dim old shop of which the exact counterpart may be seen half-a-dozen times repeated in any one of the quaint and narrow streets which today as then crowd the space lying along the river between the Cathedral and the Church of the Dominicans; or one imagines him stealing up to the attic to devour in secret the dusty old romances which Pierre had stored there because the shop was too small to hold them; or, again, escaping from home to surreptitiously pick up Flemish from the street gamins, for his father remained a Frenchman to the end of his days and, though he had married a Flemish wife, professed an intellectual contempt for Flemings and Flemish.
Later on Pierre Conscience sold up his shop and retired to the Kempen or Campine, that drab and dreary plain which stretches between Antwerp and Venlo. Young Hendrik is next heard of as a tutor in Antwerp, where the Revolution of 1830 found him. Then an extraordinary thing happened. So had the mind and character of the Flemish folk amongst whom he lived won on him, that the son of the Frenchman took up arms as a soldier of Belgian independence. His camp and barrack life made him better than ever acquainted with the thoughts and view-points of Flemish-speaking people, and in 1830 we find him writing: –
“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.”
The recent history of Ireland affords more than one parallel to that strange resolve on the part of a youth whose paternal language was French. As a matter of fact, Conscience’s first literary efforts were made in his own and his father’s native tongue; but, his soldiering done, he returned home filled with the quixotic resolution to perform the feat of writing a book in Flemish, – a thing it had never occurred to anyone to do for perhaps a generation. As the fruit of this resolve he produced “In’t Wondejaar,” a book which is a holy book in Flanders today. So enraged was the stern old ex-officer of Napoleon to find that this son had written a book in Flemish that he incontinently turned him out of doors. With two francs in his pocket and a bundle of clothes under his arm Hendrik started for Antwerp. The Flemish Revival had begun.
Probably the hand of God was in the Flemish movement, as it has been said to be in ours. Certain it is that young Conscience almost immediately gained powerful friends in Antwerp; and though during the next few years he was often perilously near starving, he produced book after book – “The Lion of Flanders” in 1838, “How to become a Painter” and “What a Mother can Suffer” in 1843, “Siska von Roosmael” in 1844, “Lambrecht Hensmans” in 1847, “Jacob von Artevelde” in 1849, “The Conscript” in 1850.
At first his books brought him in little or no money. In order to keep the pot boiling he had to turn his hand to many things besides the creation of a literature. For thirteen months he worked as a common gardener, and his avocations ranged from this rather humbler one up to the Secretaryship of the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, – his appointment to which post ensured him at long last a competence. Meanwhile fame was coming, first slowly, afterwards more rapidly.
In 1841 a Flemish Congress at Antwerp hailed his writings as containing the seeds which gave the surest promise of a crop of Flemish literature. Followers commenced to gather round his standard – amongst others Ledejanck, whose “Three Sister Cities” is one of the classics of Flemish literature, and Jan Frans Willems, who, though an older man, declared himself a disciple of Conscience.
Works continued to flow from his pen. In 1850 came his “Blind Rose” and his “Rikketikketak”, in 1851; “The Poor Gentleman” in 1853; “The Miser.” About this time translations of his books commenced to appear in various European tongues. His later activities need not be chronicled in detail. Before he laid down his pen he had given to Flemish literature eighty independent works. His seventieth birthday was solemnised by all Belgium as a national festival; and when in the next year – 1883 – he died, his people followed him to the grave in tears.
Conscience is not, from the purely aesthetic point of view, one of the greatest figures in literary history. His pictures of Flemish home life are, indeed, exquisite, and his historical romances live and glow with something of the movement and colour of Scott. But his fame rests less on the intrinsic merits of his own work than on his influence on the intellectual and political future of his adopted people. He raised a decayed and despised speech to the dignity of a literary language; though not a Flemish speaker born, he laid deep and strong the foundations of a modern Flemish literature; he inspired a movement of national revival, literary, artistic, social, and finally political, which, continuing to our own day, is one of the most striking and humanising influences in contemporary Europe.