When the Kingdom of Belgium earned its nationhood in 1830, it was only after centuries of foreign oppression; but throughout that time, the inhabitants of the Low Countries had somehow managed, in spite of incredible outside pressures, to retain a sense of nationality. Nevertheless, the feeling of unity in the artistic sphere was precarious and in danger of extinction when Hendrik Conscience began his drive to bring the Flemish language to life throughout a national literature.
When he began, Conscience was working with a debased dialect, scorned by the French and Walloon and rejected by the French-speaking educated Fleming; it was the language of the peasant, incapable of expressing complex ideas or emotions or painting beautiful images, and barely sufficient for dealing with the basic needs of everyday life. By the time of his death in 1883, Conscience—through his one hundred books translated into all the major European languages—had transformed this uncouth dialect into a language beautiful and lyrical, strong and sensitive, flexible and adaptable to all the demands of sophisticated literature.
Conscience’s fiction falls into two main categories. The first, which includes his most popular novel, THE LION OF FLANDERS, is made up of stories in the historical romance tradition reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott. These novels are generally set in Belgium’s medieval period; they are filled with scenes of colorful pageantry and heroic, daring deeds and were intended by the author not only to demonstrate the beauties of the Flemish language but also to inspire pride in Flemish readers by dramatizing their illustrious heritage. Because Conscience’s historical novels have enjoyed the most popularity abroad, his other works have suffered some neglect; these are the novels detailing contemporary Flemish life and culture. In these stories, which have all the color, vividness, and rich texture of a seventeenth century Dutch painting, Conscience demonstrates his abilities as a first-rate realistic writer. His sympathy and affection for his subject, as well as his intimate knowledge of the simple and homely scenes he describes, give the stories a charm and glow all their own.