Britain and America hardly took any interest in nineteenth century Flemish literature, with the exception of Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883), “the Walter Scott of Flanders”. In order to understand this international success, it is useful to follow some of the individual traces of the diffusion and reception of his work. As a complement to a more systematic analysis, this approach might tell us more about the specific circuits in which his texts functioned and the agents that mediated. It should also provide an insight into the discourses that surrounded the translations, the expectations they met and the position they occupied within the repertoire.

Beginning with a Conscience reference by Lafcadio Hearn, we then move on to three case studies. Series such as The Amusing Library by Lambert & Burns (London) or the New York Dunigan’s Home Library used translations to establish channels to new audiences and reading practices. These were challenged by reviewers such as George Eliot and Wilkie Collins. George Hull, a minor British Catholic author, testifies of his reading experience and ranks Conscience within a transnational European literary system. The same appetite for reading, significantly present in Conscience’s Hugo Van Craenhove, led Brownson’s Quarterly Review (Boston / New York) to reflect upon the popularization of knowledge and education. It seems that the rather conservative choices Conscience made with respect to the Flemish market, a weak literary system conditioned by strong national and ethical restrictions, gave his work a universal appeal to similar audiences abroad.

[Note: This text was originally conceived in Dutch on this blog (2012) and revised for publication in Verslagen & Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde (2013). As a I thought it might be of interest to an English audience I translated it. I welcome any suggestion or correction [form at the bottom or email]

[A good introduction to Hendrik Conscience can be found here]

#1 In my boyhood the romances of Henry Conscience were read by all boys

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is the author of the first fragment. Born in Greece as the son of an Irish army officer and a Greek mother, he grew up in Ireland and France. At nineteen he moved to the United States, where he stayed in Cincinnati and New Orleans for a long time. As a journalist he wrote striking literary pieces about local topics: political satires, sensational murder stories, local sketches and observations of minority groups. Gaining some success with his books and literary translations (of de Maupassant, Gautier…) he became a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, who sent him to Martinique and Japan (1890). Finally, he established himself there as a teacher and a journalist, later as a professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He gained international renown as a mediator between the West and isolated Japan.

The essay ‘Björnson’ from Hearn’s Interpretations of literature (1915) features a Conscience reference. It is a university lecture somewhere around the turn of the century. Addressing a Japanese audience he stresses the importance of translations to the development of its own literary culture:

In fact, if Englishmen had studied only English literature, English literature would never have become developed as it is now. And if Englishmen had studied foreign literature only in the original tongue, English literature would still have made very little progress. It has been through thousands of translations, not through scholarly study, that the best of our poetry, the best of our fiction, the best of our prose has been modified and improved by foreign influence. […] Now it may seem to you very strange that foreign influence should operate chiefly through translations, but the history of nearly every European literature proves that such is the case. And I am quite sure that if Japan is to produce an extensive new literature in the future, it will not be until after fresh ideas have become widely assimilated by the nation through thousands of translations. (Hearn, 1915, p.71-72)

The common thread running through his lectures is the importance of literary transfers to the dynamics of the native literary system. For a clear understanding of the context: Western translations did circulate in Japan at the time, but they were confined to specific segments of the market. Moreover, the cultural elite displayed an anxiety of foreign influence. (Zwicker, 2006, p. 518). By analysing authors such as Björnson, Poe or Baudelaire, Hearn offered his audience new models, that would enrich them without endangering their identity (“the original plant is not altered by the new sap”, Hearn, 1915, p.369).

Hearn demonstrates his ideas with the generic reading biography of a British child: ‘How is the mind of the English boy formed?’ (Hearn, 1915, p.72). The indigenous English literature was only a small part of the many influences it went through. Young children got their first literary experiences through nursery rhymes. Those were original. Then came the fairy tales, many of which were of French origin (Perrault, Madame d’ Aulnoy). In a third phase they read more complex stories with a moral bias, translated from German,  Swedish or Danish (Andersen, Grimm). These were so integrated into British culture that they often were not recognized as being foreign. Adventure novels formed a fourth stage. Besides Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, most were foreign. As an example from his own childhood (1850-1860) he referred to Hendrik Conscience: ‘In my boyhood the romances of Henry Conscience were read by all boys’ (Hearn, 1915, p.73). Later, of course, Walter Scott followed, but especially the French Dumas and Victor Hugo.
The fact that Hearn mentions Hendrik Conscience half a century later to a Japanese audience within a pantheon of eminent Europeans is characteristic of the foreign success of the Flemish author. Still, one might question Hearn’s argument, as he moves from individual consumption to impact on the system level. The dynamics of translations within a target system is both dependent on the power relations between the literatures and on the context of reception. According to Even-Zohar, an active role may present in three cases: in young systems, in weak or peripheral systems, and finally in systems at a turning point, that in one way or another experience a vacuum that is filled by foreign models. (Even-Zohar, 1990, p. 47). The latter seems to apply to the argument of Hearn. He suggested Japan, petrified in its cultural isolation, should be revitalized by opening up to external influence.

The example Hearn gives is less obvious. In a dominant system translations naturally have a more peripheral position. Why would English literature then import those Belgian novels? What need might they fulfil within which segments of the British system? As Hearn describes, writing in the wake of Walter Scott, Conscience could serve as a stepping stone to the dominant Scott, who by then was himself on the move to the periphery. Even-Zohar detects an interesting paradox here: translations such as Conscience’s novels function as a conservative force, that perpetuate a former dominant model as ‘système d’ antan’ (Even-Zohar 1990, p. 49). Rather than having a real impact, Conscience is accepted in the English system, because his work is reminiscent of models and norms that are already in place. One is reminded of Franco Moretti’s observation that, while many of the great themes and techniques of the age were denied right of entry into Britain, other techniques (fairy tale structures, happy endings, sentimental moralism…) enjoyed by contrast a sort of literary protectionism (Moretti, 1998, p.157). Conscience’s novels fitted the purpose perfectly and passed through the sieve. Obviously, this meant that his success was related to entertainment literature, series, train libraries and youth literature. (Lambert, 1980). Very perceptive in this respect was George Eliot’s review of Conscience’s novels in terms that were quite close to Hearn, but carried an appreciation from the new literary centre: ‘It is amusing enough in these days, when Walter Scott is found fault with for not being ‘psychological’ enough, to see extravagant praise lavished on these Flemish novels, the psychology of which is really not much above that of the moral fairy tale or the proselyting tract.’ (Eliot, 1855, p. 612-613)

#2 Conscience and The Amusing Library of Lambert & Co (1855-)

The London publishers Lambert & Burns had an important part in the distribution of Hendrik Conscience in the English language. They were not the first British publishers of Conscience, but surely the most influential.

In December 1845 the German Nicholas Trübner, the future son-in-law of the Belgian diplomat Octave Delepierre, was the first to introduce Conscience to a British audience. His Sketches from Flemish Life, in three tales: translated from the Flemish of Hendrik Conscience were published by Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans (Second edition by H.G. Bohn, 1852). The book contained three tales (Siska Van Roosemael, The Progress of  a Painter, and What a Mother can Endure) that were translated from the German of Melchior Von Diepenbrock, whose Flämisches Stilleben in drei kleine Erzählungen (Pustet, Regensburg, April 1845) proved a big success in Germany, selling several editions and 14.000 copies within the first year.

Near the end of 1854 four other stories were published as Tales of Flemish Life by Constable in Edinburgh, with a second edition soon to follow in 1855: The Recruit, Mine Host Gansendonck, Blind Rosa, and The Poor Nobleman. The same year Conscience’s Tales and Romances came off the press of Lambert & co. They were part of The Amusing Library, a series of  ‘neat pocket volumes for home or railway, also for presents or prizes, containing original tales; also translations and reprints of popular works’. The enterprise included eight new novels and novelettes in five volumes.

  • The Curse of the village, and The Happiness of Being Rich. Two tales.
  • The Lion of Flanders; or, the Battle of the Golden Spurs. 
  • Veva; or, The War of the Peasants. 
  • Tales of Old Flanders: Count Hugo of Craenhove, and Wooden Clara.
  • The Miser, and Ricketicketack.

James Burns (1808-1871), partner of Lambert, who was not mentioned explicitly, was not new to this. In the 1840ies he had published several series of juvenile and popular fiction. After his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he met with financial difficulties. The firm was able to restart in 1848 with the aid of Sir John Lambert (1812-1892) and the support of cardinal John Henry Newman, whose work they published. Lambert & Burns realised a Catholic catalogue with titles such as The Catholic Directory and the periodical The Rambler. It was no coincidence then that once in a while The Amusing Library was advertised along with cardinal Wiseman’s Popular Library of the same publishing house (The Athenaeum, 1855, p. 5).

In 1845 Nicholas Trübner had explicitly foregrounded himself as the translator in order to introduce Conscience to an English audience. In 1855 this was no longer the case. The translation remained anonymous and the figure of Conscience got all the attention. The edition referred to the personal correspondence with the author in accordance with the copyright treaty between Britain and Belgium (1854). Conscience’s approval of the translation was printed along with a facsimile of his signature. Despite the statement ‘Translated from the original Flemish’ the German text remained the intermediary. The preface to the first volume explains that Lambert & Burns elaborated on the success of the popular tales in the Constable edition a few months before (Conscience, 1855a, p. v). Conscience’s artistic reputation was mainly linked to the historical novels, now available in English for the first time. Still they expected a larger audience of the popular tales that opened and closed the series. Secretly they integrated three other short stories in anthologies of the same series. One of these tales, ‘Blind Rosa’, was part of some versions of Tales of the City and the Plain (1855) and all of the  Tales of Duty and affection (1858). It is a story that did particularly well abroad. A first translation from the German had already appeared in Sharpe’s London magazine (1852, p. 257-266) written by the popular writer Mary Howitt. Like her own work balancing on the border of children’s literature, she introduced the Swedish Frederika Bremer in Britain and the United States as a translator. Shortly afterwards ‘Blind Rosa’ was taken up by several American magazines. A third translation was part of the Constable edition (1854).

Two other short stories ‘The Headman’s Son’ and ‘The Long nail’ were present in the anthology  Romance of the olden time. Fourteen tales from history (1858) along with work of Collin de Plancy. This collection contains 14 historical stories of Belgian history and therefore bears a strong resemblance with Delepierre’s Old Flanders (1845). The Lambert Edition took the stories from Abendstunden, Part I and II of the Ausgewählte Werke von Heinrich Conscience published in 1846 by Marcus in Bonn. The German translations were written by Johan Wilhelm Wolf and his wife Maria Von Ploennies, who resided in Brussels at the time (Magazin für die Literatur des Auslandes 1846). Wolf added the older ‘Long Nail’ to replace ‘Weetlust en geloof’ [‘Curiosity and faith’], which he found unsuitable for the German public. Moreover, he expressed his preference for the powerful historical work of Conscience. In his introduction he made reservations about the sentimental sketches of Conscience and he hoped that whoever found them unpalatable, would not be deterred to read the historical novels that would follow. (Conscience, 1846b, p.[i]). Wolf’s Abendstunden was also known in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The Dublin Review reviewed it in September 1846. Conscience had already distanced himself from the ‘Long Nail’, an early story from Phantazy (1837). Reluctantly he allowed a second revised edition to come out in 1858 to avoid a law suit about his (otherwise incomplete) Complete Editions (Keersmaekers, 1993). In the story the young gent Alfred tries to murder Alva out of love for Maria the daughter of a revolutionary leader. When the attempt fails through betrayal and Alfred is executed, his fiancée singlehandedly takes revenge on fifty Spaniards. Comparison reveals that the English text follows the German quite consequently. They lie between the two versions of Conscience, though the translator has used the scissors. A number of interventions are surprisingly similar to the second Flemish edition of 1858. Thus, the long kiss (Conscience, 1837, p.83) is deleted in all texts. The embrace (ibidem, p. 79) that was lost in the Flemish version, did know the grace of the English and German editor. Interestingly, Conscience himself may have had something to do with it. According to the introduction of Wolf he would have made a number of interventions in the text for the purpose of the translation. With regard to the English text, it is very doubtful whether Conscience knew of the existence of this (anonymous) translation, let alone would have given his consent.

The reactions to the Lambert edition are covered extensively in the well-documented article by Wellens (1982). Still, The Amusing Library keeps intriguing. If one wants to understand Conscience’s foreign success, one cannot ignore the phenomenon of the series. Lisa Kuitert who studied the series in the Netherlands, describes them as a well-reasoned collection of works that fit within a certain concept, targeted at specific readerships (Kuitert, 2001, p. 153), a literary institution actually. That was also the case with The Amusing Library, so much so that The Dublin Review did not need to review the following works of Conscience because readers could blindly trust the new parts of the series to be of the same profile as the previous [Dublin Review 1856]. The discourse surrounding the series (reviews, advertisements, program, catalogue and forewords) reveals a lot about the context of Conscience’s translations, even if we concede that this might still defer somehow from the experiences and expectations of the real reading audience.

The publishers tried to position themselves within the upper market for popular fiction with a superior execution and content. Nowadays it would be quite peculiar to see so much attention devoted to the material form of a novel, but in those days the format played a crucial role in expanding the readership. A compact format at a cheap price had to make the work available to a broad market. Still it needed to be sufficiently attractive for the coffee table or to serve as a price book. For this there is reference to the quality of the paper, the elegant but clear typography, neat printing and illustrations. The design was integrated into the ‘German style’ typical for the Burns publishing house. (Alderson, 1994, p. 115). The rustic frames, vignettes and initial decorations with floral motives were reminiscent of the Nazarenes, a group of German romantic artists that were inspired by the old masters. As a result the editions have a medieval feel, close to neogothic design. There were several covers on offer with or without decoration, for use in different situations and in line with different purses.

Clearly the publishers focused on evolutions in reader audiences and new reading practices, often called ‘light reading’. The expansion and differentiation of reading was a process that had started in the eighteenth century, but only slowly reached lower classes. No match for the growth of the market the church also accepted the principle of fiction and started using the techniques of the secular press. Colclough & Vincent, 2009, p. 299-301). In a review of the Conscience’s work  The Catholic Institute Magazine  vividly described how readers were captive before in a treadmill of a limited repertoire they repeatedly read and reread:

Like a squirrel in a revolving cage, how eagerly did we, in boyhood, read the small circle of harmless books of amusement then in existence. Robinson Crusoe, The Exiles of Siberia, The Old English Baron, The Son of a Genius, and perhaps as many more, were the moral cage round which we scampered. There were other pastures to be sure; but they were forbidden tracks as containing poisonous pasturage. For instance, The Arabian Nights was dazzling and attractive, but the elder squirrels shook their heads, and told us that two hideous dragons guarded its entrance; these were Lust and Lewdness. So we ran back to our cage, and took another turn. (The Catholic Institute Magazine, 1855, p. 90)

Series focused on a new way of reading, a developing market of mass culture and anonymous consumption. The rise of leisure time was an important factor, mobility as well. This meant that people started reading in different places. The publisher focused explicitly on this new reading context, by stressing the short length of the stories. Short stories would form an ‘existing desideratum in Railway literature’, as well as being very suited for reading in a spare half hour at home.

Persons reading for mere recreation are not always in a mood for perusing a long piece of fiction; and unless on a very long journey, a reader seldom, in fact, has time to finish what he has begun; hence the advantage of a mixture of volumes containing shorter tales, or novelettes, which may be taken up and laid down at pleasure, and which at the same time shall be equal in talent and interest to any of their competitors. […] They are long enough, yet not too long; clever, amusing, well told. (Lambert & co., 1855, p. 2)

This was only partly the case for Consciences Tales and Romances, which were considered a subset of the series. The historical novels were considerably longer. Wilkie Collins, who reviewed the novels in the radical periodical The Leader, quite venomously considered Conscience at best in his shorter work. The simplicity demanded low attention. At the same time the shortness concealed Conscience’s lack of dramatic power that made his longer novels boring (Collins, 1855, p. 795).

The rest of the library consisted mainly of anthologies of short stories grouped according to ‘a specific plan’. Usually, this was national: Tales of France, Tales of Paris… Also Ireland, Spain, the German countries and the Netherlands got a volume. There were thematic collections as well: funny Tales of Humor, exciting Sea Stories, heroic Tales of Great Men (very suitable as a prize book).The differentiation in titles and subjects was aimed at a growing curiosity to discover the world in all its features, to explore ideas and knowledge and stay informed. ‘They never need to go over the old ground twice, for here they can have ‘fresh fields and pastures new’ every week in the year.’ (The Catholic Institute Magazine, 1855, p. 90) The choice of stories, both domestic and foreign, from all periods of history and characters from all classes also gave them an educational value. The ‘exotic’ aspect was especially appreciated, e.g. ‘we think that many an English reader will turn from some of our own writers, with whose sameness they are becoming rather jaded, to drink at the fresh stream here opened for them by the publishers’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, quoted in Lambert & co., 1855, p. 4).

Conscience also was considered a discovery. The attention he got fitted within the interest for reviving national cultures in Europe: ‘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.’ (Collins, 1855, p. 795). He was marketed and received as a European bestselling author. The crossover with the success in other countries created a network effect. Reviewers referred to translations elsewhere and comments of foreign critics. Especially the causerie of Armand de Pontmartin was mentioned at the time. Conscience’s novels were so in demand in 1855 that De plaeg der dorpen and Het geluk van ryk te zyn were published almost simultaneously in Dutch, French, German and English.

From the religious side the evolutions in audiences and reading practices were looked upon with mixed feelings. The perception of import and translation of foreign fiction, which was considered immoral, played an important part. The Church of England Quarterly Review linked Conscience’s novels to this context:

‘Our business is with foreign importations, seeing that the insane furor for light reading, and especially for works of fiction has become so rabid of late, more particularly among our fair countrywomen, of all ages and social conditions, from the duchess to the seamstress and the maid-of-all-work.’ (The Church of England Quarterly Review, 1855, p. 54).

As they saw the flood was not to be stopped, they accepted and even promoted content that fitted the norms: ‘All we would strive to do, is to turn that flood into safe and wholesome channels.’ (ibidem, p.53). Series such as The Amusing Library were a means then to establish reading practices that were containable and acceptable. Readers more and more knew how to read technically, but they needed to be socialized with regard to literature. Even if the church accepted reading beyond the purely functional, the imagination was subsidiary to the didactic and moral purpose. A key skill was the ability to select texts from a wide range (Kloek & Mijnhardt, 1993). In order to mediate in this the series presented itself as a ‘a choice selection of the best of the imaginative writings of various countries’ (Lambert & co., 1855, p. 5). ‘Choice’ meant a compromise between ‘the greatest amount of recreation’ and ‘a perfectly unobjectionable character’. The profile especially stressed the moral quality and the fact that it was suitable for all ages. Still an all too exclusive Roman Catholic mark was avoided not to exclude other Christian audiences. The work of Conscience was considered very well suited to develop that socialization. The strong focus on more basic literary competences like empathy, enjoyment and recognition, with which he created a Flemish reading audience, also appealed to foreign readers. Moreover his work, coming from an idyllic rural European area was attributed a simplicity and moral purity that was supposed to be lacking in more civilised or developed areas. Values that were linked to his work were simplicity, honesty, reliability, compassion, optimism, complacency at the verge of paternalism. In the words of the editor’s preface: ‘With all its humour, it is quite a grave lesson of contentment with one’s lot in the world’ (Conscience, 1855a, p. vii). He goes on to suggest it was well suited to circulate among the poor. This characteristic was considered to distinguish Conscience’s novels from the bitterness of Auerbach (The Dublin Review, 1855, p. 502). The name Conscience had become a brand for suitable reading pleasure.

In the historical novels the didactic function was foregrounded. Both The Lion of Flanders and The War of the Peasants were preceded by an extensive preface. Although the footnotes of the Flemish original were absent, quite a lot of them were integrated in the text. Also the political dimension of the original context was neutralised. The preface to The Lion of Flanders apologized for the theme of revenge which was at the base of the story, even though it was well justified. The translation also omitted anti-French rhetoric. The frontispiece no longer focused on the lion as a political symbol. It showed a caring Mathilde waking at her fiancée’s sickbed in an elegant medieval decor. Finally the preface of The War of the Peasants described the anti-French tendency as a fictional exaggeration that was more funny than real. The Leader found it very hard to accept the negative portrayal of the French republicans and denounced the conservative prejudices in Conscience’s work. (Collins, 1855, p. 796). Even The Athenaeum described it as sentimentalism “from The old times” and deplored the lack of any encouragement to progress. (The Athenaeum, 1855, p. 812).

It would appear that Lambert & Burns were particularly creative with the distribution of the series (Keersmaeckers, 2009, p. 88 n85). The items were sold both at bookstores and along the railway. The first parts were published in co-edition with Menzies (Edinburg), Levy (Paris), Kiessling (Brussels), Goemaere (Brussels) or Van Dieren (Antwerp) and were spread throughout Europe. From the mid 1850ies on Conscience appeared in advertisements of mostly Catholic bookstores in Australia (eg.  this advertisement or this review). From the fourth volume on the American publisher John Murphy (Baltimore) was also a partner for a co-edition. Probably this was a distribution agreement to avoid taxes or restrictions. After that Murphy went his own way. Siding with J.B. Lippincott from Philadelphia he had the English translations re-edited for his own series of Hendrik Conscience’s Short Tales. Also the Constable-edition was included. They were preceded by an American preface. The Lambert series was also distributed in England under the imprint of Morton and of William Lay. Until late in the nineteenth century Lambert & Burns, Burns & Oates and their successors would keep on printing and selling them, often undated, so they remained timeless. In the early nineties we read an indictment against this practice in The Irish Monthly:

Another parcel of books from the busy press of Burns and Oates of London, all gaily bound, and all, alas! undated, so that they may come to us five years hence as brand-new books. Some of them agree also in suppressing the names of the poor authors; not only ‘Scenes and incidents at sea,’ which had no author but only a compiler and an intelligent pair of scissors, but also ‘Tales of Duty and Affection’, which outside title becomes inside ‘Blind Rosa and other Tales’. As they are all cast in foreign scenes, and as ‘H.C.’ is signed to the first of them, perhaps they are translated from the Flemish of Hendrik Conscience, like ‘The Demon of Gold’, which takes a volume of 230 pages to itself— and, by-the-by, unlike its comrades, it bears a date — 1889. Author’s and publishers’ name guarantees these tales as safe at least. (The Irish Monthly, 1891, p. 277-278)

#3 The Walter Scott of Belgium

george_hullPart of that audience was the Lancashire author George Hull (1863-1933) who wrote some poems on his reading of Conscience. Hull was the son of a coal merchant and would initially follow his father in the trade. Inspired by the example of Longfellow he started to write Catholic devotional or autobiographical poetry. He remained mostly known for his poems and stories in the Lancashire dialect. He also compiled an anthology of The Poets and Poetry of Blackburn (1793-1902). His debut collection The Heroes of the Heart, and other Lyrical Poems (1894) contains two poems on Conscience.

The first, the sonnet ‘An afternoon in November’, is dated November 1883, two months after Conscience’s death. It is a sonnet written after reading The Lion of Flanders on a rainy day: ‘Beside the fire I sit at leisure – fain / To learn from Hendrik Conscience the renown / Of my dear Flemish Knights, whose castles brown / And hoary, pass in vision through my brain.’ (Hull, 1894, p. 69). The reading – he suggests that it is not the first time he reads Conscience – calls to him nostalgic childhood memories.

The second sonnet is dedicated to Hendrik Conscience, ‘The Walter Scott of Belgium. Author of The Lion of Flanders, and many other stories of Flemish life and history’.

Dear Hendrik Conscience ; Master of Romance !
With tender skill thy pen pourtrays the lot
Of humble life in many a rural spot
Where Grief and Joy meet with familiar glance.

And when thy country’s warriors stern advance
At thy behest, and battle waxes hot.
Scarce even our own valiant Walter Scott,
In Ivanhoe, with thee could break a lance !
Lion of Flanders ! how thine image glows,
True Golden Knight ! upon the matchless page
Of Conscience, – this new Iliad in prose.

Whence streams the light of that heroic age
When French oppression bred the conquering rage
With which the guildsmen slew their plundering foes !
(Hull, 1894, p. 65)

Comparing Conscience with Walter Scott, sometimes Dickens also, was quite common at the time. The qualification positions him within the international literary field. It works in both directions. In one way it means that he elaborates on foreign models, that spread from the European literary center to the periphery. He is the Flemish or Belgian Walter Scott, just as Van Lennep is the Dutch one or Ingemann the Danish one. We would do him injustice to regard him merely as a creditable derivative, because he did adapt the models to the constraints of the own market: simplification, amplification of the epic elements, mixing it with folklore and oral traditions… (Gobbers, 1990). Within the context of the Flemish Belgian market he connects with new audiences as no other does. It has been said that he created the audience: “He learned his people to read”. The development of national culture became linked to the consecration of his authorship. He is “the chief” of the new Flemish literature (Collins, 1855, p. 795; Eliot, 1855, p. 612). Comparing him to Walter Scott or calling his work a ‘new Iliad in prose’ is not just a genre qualification, but also a means of giving him a status (Casanova, 2002, p. 13-14). As the Hull sonnet well states Conscience’s qualities and his national status give him access to an international literary space, the “Champions League” of literature. Transcending the small language area by means of translations, he finds himself in the same field as Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo. Hull describes it as a duel. Lifted from their original context his texts, undeniably having lost some of their subtlety, are weighed, not just by literary, also by ideological and economical standards. The contemporary literary centre contests his status: ‘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. […] 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.’ (Collins, 1855, p. 795). Wilkie Collins compares him to Balzac and disapproves of the general character of Conscience’s writings. He regrets the lack of Flemish specificity. Despite this, the fact that Conscience is recognisable as a variation on a literary theme gives him access to the British market in contrast to Balzac who is hardly translated because of his radical reputation. Conscience’s connectivity, both with regard to reading pleasure and to moral suitability sustain his popularity. Even George Eliot has to admit it is the kind of material that is in demand among a large class of persons (Eliot, 1855, p. 613). The consecration process worked both ways. Translations were followed in Belgium and Flanders. Foreign reviews were translated and commented upon. The more he participated in the global space, the more the Belgian national culture considered itself consecrated, the more the Flemish subculture was legitimised, the more his personal status grew. It is not just a matter of import or export, there was an interconnection between the development of his authorship at home and abroad.

After 1901 Hull became a representative for the London publishing firm of Burns, Oates & Washbourne, Ltd., which owned the rights to the British translations of Conscience. Following the First World War he returned to Conscience one last time in the poem ‘The heroes’, which begins as follows:

‘For Flanders and the Lion!’ was the cry in days of yore,
When the Flemings fought for freedom as men seldom fought before;
When Deconinck and Jan Breydel led the guildsmen to the fray,
And the Battle of the Golden Spurs was won that glorious day.

Every town in olden Flanders had its band of heroes then,
And to-day the dauntless spirit of those warriors lives again,
When the little Belgian nation meets the huge invading foe
As the guildsmen met – and conquered – seven hundred years ago.

Then an evil-minded Queen had stung the Flemings to advance,
On the glorious field of Courtrai, ‘gainst the loftiest knights of France;
But to-day the French and Flemish are as brothers in the fight
‘Gainst the haughty Prussian tyrant, who would crush them in his spite.
(Hull, 1922, p. 131)

#4 The milk and not the strong meat

We conclude with a reference from Brownson’s Quarterly Review (1859). This periodical was founded by Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), intellectual, minister and social activist from New England. Initially a member of the liberal Boston transcendentalist community he had some influence as editor of the Boston Quarterly Review. Around 1844 he converted to Catholicism. Against the backdrop of the rapidly developing industrial city of Boston he chose a conservative course under the name Brownson’s Quarterly Review. In 1856 he moved his periodical to New York, where it was published by Dunigan. At the time the firm still offered Conscience’s Little Frank [Hoe men schilder wordt + Wat eene moeder lyden kan] and Fashion [Siska van Roosemael] as part 10 and 11 of the Popular Library.

The actual introduction of Conscience in America took place a decade earlier. In January 1846, hardly a steamboat trip after the publication of Trübner’s translation in London, Wiley & Putnam offered the US import of the British edition (Wiley & Putnam, 1846, p. 3). The ambitious transatlantic publisher and bookseller guaranteed delivery within 70 days after ordering. Junior partner George Palmer Putnam held an office at Paternoster Row in London en had befriended Trübner who worked further down the road (Greenspan, 2000, p. 106). Just two months later, in March 1846, Trübner’s text of What a mother can endure appeared in The Young Churchman’s Miscellany: A Magazine of Religious and Entertaining Knowledge in New York. This is exactly one year after Trübner’s source, the German edition of Melchior von Diepenbrock, went to press.

In January 1847 Wiley & Putnam announced the first separate publication of Conscience’s tales on American soil. They were to be illustrated by John William Orr, one of the pioneers of American engraving who also illustrated the first American reprints of Dickens. The Library of Choice Reading Wiley & Putnam was meant to distribute the better foreign fiction and nonfiction in America under the motto ‘Books which ARE books’. They also introduced the European paperback binding that made the books cheaper and more handy. As ambitious was their Library of American Books. Offering authors such as Hawthorne, Poe and Melville they strived at an American literary canon and induced the American Renaissance. An honest remuneration served the professionalisation of the authors. The initiative fitted the progressive national and cultural ambitions of Young America. Editor Evert Duyckink had ties with the Democrats (Greenspan, 1992).

books-hc advertentieWas it because Putnam and Wiley broke up or didn’t Conscience add up to the standards, there was no Conscience edition by Wiley & Putnam. There was an extension, however. In December 1847 (The Literary World, 18/12/1847) Dunigan announced an edition of the Tales of Flemish Life that would eventually come out at the end of 1849. The design was not inferior to the British version. Besides Orr, also William Howland was involved. He provided decorative frames for a selection of illustrations. The tales were published separately in two volumes of Dunigan’s Home Library. Aimed at the Christmas season they were bundled with an introduction by Anne Charlotte Lynch and cover artwork by Howland. The following years reprints were issued by T.W. Strong and Stanford & Swords at New York.

Anne Charlotte Lynch was known for her Saturday literary salon and had just published a poetry collection with publisher Putnam. Disregarding the biographical context of Conscience, she presented the tales as wholesome juvenile fiction with a pun on Young America. The text also underwent small changes. Expressions and an illustration that were unsuitable for the young audience were omitted. In Fashion [Siska van Roosemael] the expression ‘frenchified’ was systematically replaced by the more neutral ‘fashionable’. The ‘frenchification’ of Flemish customs was a central theme to Conscience’s work. In America the political aspect of the novel was dismantled in favour of the ethical one. Also Evert Duyckink was around. At the end of 1848 he published the Octave Delepierre notices on Flemish literature from the London Athenaeum in his periodical The Literary World (Calis, 2006, p. 547). The first piece focused on Johan Alfried De Laet with a long introduction on the Flemish Movement (9/10/1848). Jan Frans Willems (6/11/1848) was the pretext to treat the medieval songs. He saved the last article on Hendrik Conscience for review of Dunigan’s edition. After presenting biographical details he extended on the difficulties of the young Flemish literature. The illustrations reminded him of Töppfer. His judgement: ‘Without showing great original power, the tales in the volume before us possess much domestic interest and feeling, and are well adapted for the purpose of the reprint, as a Christmas book for young readers.’ (Duyckinck, 1849, p. 516).

The introduction of Conscience can be linked to some structuring principles of the American fiction market (Austin, 2006, p. 464-465). The striking domination of a foreign centre is similar to the Belgian system (with regard to the French). In the nineteenth century America published as much fiction from British origin as their own. Printers and publishers often weren’t interested in taking risks with indigenous literature. Americans imported, reprinted and read Dickens, Dumas and Conscience because Britain did. That explains, for example, why both Graham’s Magazine and The Living Age reprinted Mary Howitt’s translation of Conscience’s tale ‘Blind Rosa’ from Sharpe’s London Magazine (1852). In contrast to Flanders America did have a direct access to the dominating English language. As a consequence translations from other languages stayed peripheral both in quantity and in impact. They were aimed at the feminine periodical audience or at niche markets such as the juvenile fiction or the Irish Roman Catholic circuit (as the Dunigan edition shows).

This is the setting for the point of view of Orestes Brownson, who was also part of Lynch’s network. With Putnam and Young America he shared a concern for a quality reading provision as the foundation of the emancipation of the lower classes and a democratic society. (Ryan, 2003) Brownson’s Quarterly devoted a lot of attention to what he called ‘inspirational fiction’ and The Popular Library was a matter of discussion a number of times. Judging from the rest of the Dunigan fund (bibles, missals, catechisms, almanacs, the travelogue of the Flemish missionary De Smet…) it must have been a rather progressive act to publish a fiction series in that environment. The Tales of Flemish life could count on Brownson’s approval:

‘as a secular literature attractive and not unprofitable to the young we recommend both, and feel that our Catholic community owe a debt of gratitude to the Messrs. Dunigan for placing them within their reach. In an age like ours, popular reading is a necessity of life’. (Brownson, 1849, p. 547)

His approval of Conscience was linked to a criticism of contemporary American literature. He considered it literature from and for a Protestant elite, unfit for a national literature. The only exception was Longfellow, who incidentally himself had a copy of the Dunigan Conscience edition in his library [Finding Aid Longfellow Family Papers]. In Brownson’s view America did not yet possess a national literature, which had to be religious, popular and subservient. With this respect the repertoire was very limited. It had to be extended with translations, reprints and import.

Though we take a deep interest in our own literature, and are ready to welcome any work of merit from an American author, we think Mr. Dunigan has done well to depart from his original intention, of confining himself to domestic productions, and to include this interesting tale in his series of works for popular reading. Mr. Dunigan is one of our most liberal and enterprising publishers, and he has a laudable desire to encourage native talent, and to call forth a domestic literature for the Catholic public; but we are inclined to think his attempt somewhat premature. For the present, better works, works far better adapted to nourish and strengthen the Catholic life, may be obtained from Ireland and England, or by translation from the French and German, Italian and Spanish, than we can ourselves produce. [review Thornberry Abbey 1846]

The Roman Catholic readership consisted mainly of poor immigrants who had economic concerns. The situation was further aggravated by the fragmentation of nationalities, which led many Americans to relate to their overseas homeland culture in the first place. A strange example of the crossings within these transnational networks is the fact that the Irish publisher James Duffy based his edition of Conscience’s tales in Duffy’s Popular Library (Dublin, 1852) on the American edition of Dunigan rather than on the London one.

In another review ‘religious novels’ Brownson focuses on the repertoire. American Catholics are caught between ‘the light and mischievous literature with which the press is flooding the country’ and other religious, often polemical texts. In between is a gap. Dunigan’s series is no easy task.

The works published must be attractive, and in some degree adapted to the prevailing taste, or they will not be read by those for whom they are more especially prepared; and must be moral, Catholic in tone and influence, or they will not be preferable to the literature it is hoped they will supersede. But to produce books which combine at once both of these qualifications requires a combination of piety, talent, and genius, which is not always to be had for the asking. [Brownson’s Quarterly 1847]

Conscience, probably because he himself wrote in a similar context and with a similar readership in mind, fitted Brownson‘s standards perfectly. In his influential essay ‘Catholicity in the nineteenth century’ he called Conscience one of the great Catholic writers (Brownson, 1858, p. 487). Also his review of the Murphy edition (Baltimore, 1855) was very positive: ‘We cannot praise them too highly. The author is one of those men whom God sends us only at distant intervals, and for the general elevation and glory of the human race.’ (Brownson, 1856, p. 269). He preferred the Flemish tales to those of Walter Scott because of their universal – read Catholic – appeal. ‘His tales are intensely national, they are Flemish, but at the same time universal, appealing to what is deepest, truest, noblest, and purest in the universal human heart.’ (ibidem) Even the national aspect of Conscience’s work was no objection. Indeed, it offered a Catholic model to fulfil the need for further American integration.

On to our last find now. It is to be found in a pedagogical article from 1859. The author – not Brownson – takes a stand against a publication on Charlemagne in which Catholic education was held responsible for the fact that the emperor could hardly write. There is talk of ‘monkish ignorance’. The stakes of the debate are the popularization of knowledge and education, including culture, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Conscience’s Hugo van Craenhove acts as bridge between the Middle Ages of Charlemagne and his own time, ‘the age of cheap wisdom’. The author uses the story as an emblem of unaccompanied hunger for knowledge. ‘Not enough is bad, more than enough is not good.’ Useless or even dangerous: ‘there may be knowledge without malice, but there is no malice without knowledge’. He argues that knowledge is not an end in itself but a means that must be related to a value framework. Education is important, as far as it happens in the right dosage and the right framework, ‘the popular education must, of course, be the common education, the milk and not the strong meat; and no art can ever make the common to be uncommon, the vulgar to be excellent. We cannot make the milk to be both milk and strong meat at one and the same time.’ (ibidem).


The milk and not the strong meat. This might have been Conscience’s motto. Often too much milk and not enough meat perhaps? Anyway, he succeeded like no other in adapting to the new reading markets. The choices he made with regard to the Flemish context, a weak literary system with strong national and ethical restraints, gave his work a universal appeal to similar reader audiences abroad.

Works cited

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