Hendrik Conscience : biography
Henri "Hendrik" Conscience (3 December 1812 Antwerp – 10 September 1883 Elsene) was a Belgian writer. He was a pioneer in writing in Dutch after the secession from the Netherlands in 1830 left Belgium in that time a mostly French-speaking country.
Hendrik 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. Hendrik’s mother was a Fleming, Cornelia Balieu. When, in 1815, the French abandoned Antwerp after the Congress of Vienna, 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. 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. 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, 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 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, with the title In ‘t Wonderjaar 1566 (published Ghent, 1837).