Wilkie Collins recenseert Hendrik Conscience (1855)

De vele honderden vertalingen en edities door Arents en anderen verzameld, getuigen van Consciences onbetwistbare succes in het buitenland. Daarbij blijft wel de vraag welke lezersgroepen deze teksten bereikten en hoe de buitenlandse literaire opiniemakers ze beoordeelden.

Wat het Engelse taalgebied betreft, trokken o.m. Octave Delepierre en Nicholas Trübner de verspreiding van Conscience op gang (Onttoovering 18/08/2011). Toch blijven vooral de kritische beoordelingen van Henry Fothergill Chorley in The Athenaeum en George Eliot in The Westminster Review bij. Ook Charles Dickens bleef opvallend onverschillig. Daaraan kunnen we nu de mening van Wilkie Collins toevoegen. Zijn twee anonieme recensies in het radicale opinie-en cultuurblad The Leader zijn bijzonder interessant. Hij beoordeelt er niet alleen de kwaliteit van Consciences werk op zich, maar gaat ook dieper in op de mechanismen achter het succes.

leader conscience

Het weekblad The Leader werd opgericht in 1850 en gaf politieke ruimte aan een brede groep radicalen van republikeinen tot christelijke socialisten. Thornton Hunt was verantwoordelijk voor het politieke gedeelte. De andere helft van de 24 bladzijden werd ingevuld met culturele en literaire artikels onder redactie van George Henry Lewes, die George Eliot erbij betrok. Al na een jaar kwam het blad in financiële problemen. Het werd overgenomen door Edward Pigott, die Wilkie Collins meebracht. Collins leverde vooral in de jaren 1854-1856 heel wat bijdragen (geïdentificeerd op basis van de briefwisseling door Beetz 1982). Nadien concentreerde hij zich uitsluitend op Dickens’ Household Words.

Op 6 januari 1855 bespreekt hij Conscience voor het eerst naar aanleiding van de succesvolle Constable-uitgave van vier verhalen. We zien er vooral Collins’ groeiende aandacht voor de plot. Hij vindt de verhalen te lang uitgesponnen en raadt Conscience aan om de door hem afgewezen Franse stijl goed te bestuderen.

A BATCH OF FICTIONS

Hendrik Conscience’s Tales of Flemish Life have already made themselves a reputation for simplicity, tenderness, and truth, which they have well deserved. They are the most delicately-treated of Prose-Pastorals. If the author only possessed the art of story-telling, they would be perfect in their way—but either he does not care to cultivate this all-important faculty (in a novelist), or it has not been given to him. These Tales want compression in many passages. It is undeniable, with all their great merits of purity of sentiment and truth to Nature, that they are tedious, now and then – not in consequence of their subjects, incidents, or characters, but in consequence of the author’s manner of telling them. While Mr. Hendrik Conscience (judging by his Preface) repudiates the crimes and horrors of French literature, it would certainly do him no harm if he set himself to acquire some of the exquisite niceties and neatnesses of French story-telling.

Enkele maanden later pikken de uitgevers Lambert & Burns in op het succes van Constable met de uitgave van Conscience’s Tales and Romances. Ze maakten deel uit van The Amusing Library. Het betrof acht nieuwe romans en novelles, verdeeld over vijf volumes. Op 18 augustus 1855 volgt een nieuwe, uitvoerige recensie van de eerste drie delen. Eerst vraagt Collins zich af hoe Conscience toegang krijgt tot het internationale veld. Hij wijt dit aan de (extraliteraire) aandacht die hij als vertegenwoordiger van een nieuwe nationale literatuur genereert. Vervolgens weegt hij het werk. Consciences dramatisch gevoel staat garant voor interessante scenes en leesplezier, maar op literair vlak voldoet hij niet aan Collins’ standaard. Het kernbegrip waaraan hij getoetst wordt is originaliteit. Wat is de meerwaarde voor het internationale publiek? Collins mist de specificiteit van de Belgische achtergrond, die een Balzac wel heeft voor Frankrijk. Er zijn geen originele figuren of gedachten, waardoor men de aandacht verliest. Dit laat zich minder voelen in zijn korte verhalen, dan in het langere historische werk. Bovendien heeft Collins het moeilijk met de conservatieve geest van Consciences werk.

Conclusie: naar Vlaamse maatstaven mag Conscience een eersterangsauteur zijn, op Europees niveau plaatst Collins hem op het tweede plan.

THE NOVELS OF M. HENDRIK CONSCIENCE

The Curse of the Village, and The Happiness of being Rich. Two Tales. Lambert and Co
Veva ; or, The War of the Peasants. Lambert and Co.
The Lion of Flanders ; or, The Battle of the Golden Spurs. An Historical Romance.Lambert and Co.

From one of the prefatory puffs attached to these translations we gather two important facts. First, that the revival of Flemish literature took place in the year 1830 ; and secondly, that M. Hendrik Conscience is the chief among the writers by whom this amazingly recent revival has been brought about. These two facts explain the otherwise unaccountable notoriety, in the way of foreign translations, which the books placed at the head of this notice have obtained. A national literature which is only a quarter of a century old is a curiosity in Europe, and the chief man connected with the literature is necessarily, in virtue of his position, a curiosity also. He is the Infant Phenomenon of the world of books, and he gets notice accordingly in all sorts of right-seeing quarters.

Apart from the exceptional circumstances which surround him, M. Conscience cannot, as it appears to us, lay claim to any special attentions from the reading public. He has a new literary stage and new literary scenery at his disposal; and if he could add to these new actors and actresses, dressed entirely in a costume of his own devising, and speaking sentiments of his own inventing, he might, as times go, really and truly start a new school. This, however, is exactly what he cannot do. He is not an original writer. Flemish names, customs, and costumes are plentiful enough in his novels; but there is no such thing as an original character, or a new thought in any one of the three books which, we have read for the purpose of writing this notice.

M. Conscience is most successful in his short stories. We have already, if our recollection serves us rightly, helped to draw attention to some of these as presented in a lately-published translation. They are prettily and simply written, and they afford the reader pleasant glimpses here and there at quaint local customs. They are happily too short to allow the author’s want of executive dramatic power (for he has dramatic feeling) in the development of story and characters, to be sensibly felt. Without any positive novelty of idea at the bottom of any one of them, they are still very agreeable reading – partly because they do not claim attention for too long a time, and partly because they do not require the writer to rise to heights which he is not strong enough to scale successfully.

Thus, the pleasantest of the books now before us is the first on our list; for the stories, though tediously minute here and there, are of the moderate length, to which, in our opinion, M. Conscience should always restrict himself. The Curse of the Village is the grog-shop, and the story is written on the temperance side, with the usual temperance arguments. The second tale and the best, The Happiness of Being Rich, points quaintly and amusingly enough the old grovelling moral that people should be always content with such things as they have. With every disposition to see the best side of these stories, it is impossible not to be struck by the want of life-like individuality which the characters in them exhibit. What Scott did with the poor people of Scotland – what Dickens does with the poor people of London  – is what M. Conscience cannot do with the poor people of Flanders. Perhaps it is hard to try the chief of the new Flemish school of novel writing by the high standard of the chiefs of the old English school. Let us go a little lower, and measure him by the height of Miss Edgeworth or Miss Austen. Even then, comparing what he has brought out; of the people about him with what they brought out of the people about them, he comes before us sadly empty-handed. Testing him again by the French standard, he still loses. Balzac can see in one little provincial town of France more than M. Conscience can see, judging by what we have as yet read of his writings, in all Flanders. Is the Flemish popular character to blame for this? Is there no genuine nationality in the nation? With the higher classes it may be so; but surely striking individualities must still exist among the lower. Down among the people there must be positive characteristics to be found in Flanders as elsewhere, if the searcher only knows how to pick them up. The High Town of Brussels is a bad imitation of Paris; but all that is left of the Low Town is still distinctive and original.

The two long stories stories, Veva, and The Lion of Flanders, are intended to illustrate two widely separated periods of Flemish history, in which the people revolted against the domination of the French. Veva describes the war of the peasants against the Republic of ’92, and The Lion of Flanders the war of the townsmen in the thirteenth century against Philip the Fair. Both novels contain abundant evidences of careful workmanship, but both – not to go too deeply into particulars when we are obliged to find fault – have the fatal defect of dulness. Any English reader taking up either of them, would be able, we strongly suspect, to put it down exactly at the time when he had previously resolved to abandon books, and take to some other occupation. Whatever M. Conscience may do among his own public, we doubt if he will keep any lady sitting up too late, or make any gentleman unpunctual at dinner-time, among our public. His want of faculty as a painter of character is the principal cause of his tediousness; out of the dry bones of the Past, he cannot put together living figures. Although defective in general construction, many of his scenes are well imagined and powerfully written; but the people who move through them cannot fasten on the reader’s sympathies, or even, by their recorded actions, keep him in a state of suspended interest. Veva, being nearest to modern times, is the least tedious of the two books. But the author’s Conservative prejudices lead him into the old injustice of exhibiting in his Republicans the violent results of the French Revolution, without also, in common fairness, exhibiting in his Royalists, the causes which led to it. People unacquainted with French history could draw no other inference after reading Veva, than that the Kings, Aristocracy, and Priesthood of France, before the year 1790, were all undeservedly distrusted and unreasonably resisted by a populace in a state of diabolical frenzy about nothing at all!

On the whole, the result of our perusal of the works of M. Conscience is, that he must be content to stand with the second rank of writers if he aspires to take his place as a contributor to the contemporary literature of Europe. Judged by the Flemish standard, he stands out prominently—but judged by the European standard, his position alters; it then becomes clear enough that he is in no respect one of the great writers of fiction in our time.

Collins oordeel ligt hiermee vrij dicht bij het standpunt van George Eliot enkele maanden later in de Westminster Review (oktober 1855). Ook zij vindt het een “curiosity” die literair onvoldoende ingevuld wordt. Ze haalt dezelfde argumenten aan: een jonge literatuur “in its long clothes”, een gemiste kans om de Vlaamse individualiteit te vertolken, de gebrekkige psychologie van de personages en het verschil tussen de maatstaven van de jonge Belgische literatuur en het Europese veld.

In beide  recensies voel je een verwondering, zelfs ongenoegen over Consciences succesvolle ontvangst in Europa en Engeland in het bijzonder. Hun reactie dient dan ook gelezen te worden als een kritiek op de hiërarchieën in de Engelse literaire markt. George Eliot geeft b.v. toe dat Consciences werk het soort van materiaal is dat gevraagd wordt door een groot publiek (Eliot, 1855, p. 613) Daar wordt de herkenbare Conscience met open armen ontvangen, terwijl een originele figuur als Balzac het onder meer vanwege zijn radicale reputatie bijzonder moeilijk heeft om door te breken. Het gaat vaak om leespraktijken waarin leesplezier, herkenbaarheid en morele geschiktheid zwaarder wegen dan originaliteit. Net de keuzes die Conscience maakte in functie van de Vlaamse context, een zwak literair systeem met sterke nationale en ethische normen, maakten zijn werk hiervoor aantrekkelijk.

Bibliografie, voor zover niet gelinkt

Beetz, Kirk H. (1982). ‘Wilkie Collins and “The Leader”.’ Victorian Periodicals Review, 15/1: 20-29.

Simon, Irène (1960). ‘George Eliot and Hendrik Conscience.’ Revue des Langues Vivantes, 26/5: 386-389.

Wellens, Oscar (1982). ‘De kritische receptie van Conscience in Engeland.’ Handelingen Koninklijke Zuidnederlandse Maatschappij voor Taal- en Letterkunde en Geschiedenis,36: 259-271.

 

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