Last reviewed: June 2018
Flemish novelist and short-story writer
December 3, 1812
September 10, 1883
A leader in the revival of the Flemish vernacular as a vehicle of the literary art, Hendrik Conscience (kawns-YAHN-suh), son of a French father and a Flemish mother, was born in Antwerp on December 3, 1812. During his childhood, the family lived for a time in Antwerp and then moved to a flat, desolate stretch of land between Antwerp and Venloo, the setting for much of his later fiction. When he was seventeen, Conscience was sent to Antwerp to study; he supported himself in part by tutoring. In 1830, at the time of the Belgian revolution, he volunteered for the army and served in the ranks until 1837. Hendrik Conscience.
Conscience had written some poetry in French while in the army, but when he turned to writing fiction, he decided to write in Flemish, a dialect considered by all educated Belgians as too vulgar for literary use. His first book, In’t Wonderjaar 1566 (in the year of marvels, 1566), was well received in 1837; King Leopold I of Belgium gave the book his personal praise. Conscience’s father was so angry that his son should write a book in Flemish, however, that he turned the young man out of the family home. A collection of stories and tales, Phantazy (fantasy), appeared in the same year, under royal patronage. Later novels of Belgian life include The Poor Nobleman and Benjamin van Vlaanderen.
A congress meeting at Ghent in 1841 mentioned Conscience’s work as the beginnings of a true national literature, but for many years his novels about homely life, written in Flemish, did not achieve popularity. In the 1850s, however, his popularity rose, and his novels were translated into German, French, and English. In later life, Conscience held the title of keeper of the Royal Belgian Museum. When he died in Brussels on September 10, 1883, he was given the state funeral of an important government official.