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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Henry Bishop (1847–1928)

By Juan Valera (1824–1905)

JUAN VALERA was born at Cabra, a village of the province of Cordova. He died at Madrid, 19th April, 1905. His father was a rear-admiral, his mother a Marchioness Paniega. He received his education in two church schools, one at Malaga, the other on the Sacro Monte of Granada, over the Albaicín, where the gipsies still live in their rock-cut dwellings. He was distinctly of the upper class, and honors and distinction came early to him: his accomplished manners and worldly grace are still remembered by the seniors in the many capitals in which he spent his young manhood. He very early entered upon the career of diplomacy. He was secretary of legation successively at Naples, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Dresden, and Petrograd; and later was Spanish minister to the United States and some other countries. He was also at various times deputy to the Cortes, high official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Agriculture and Commerce, Director of Public Instruction, and at last a life senator and a member of the Council of State. He was one of the eight eminent Spaniards commissioned by the nation to go and offer the crown to Prince Amadeo of Italy, after the overthrow of Isabel II. in 1868. As a political writer, he collaborated with the group of talented men, under José Luis de Albareda, who conducted El Contemporáneo (The Contemporary), a liberal review which overturned the ministry of Marshal O’Donnell. The same Albareda, later, founded La Revista de España (The Spanish Review), in which a good deal of Valera’s work appeared.

Valera was also a professor of foreign literatures, and a member of the Spanish Academy. He attempted many varieties of literary work, and was eminent in all. It might fairly be assumed from his smooth, harmonious, polished style, that he wrote verses; and such is the case. Of his collected ‘Poems’ (1856), ‘El Fuego Divino’ (The Fire Divine) is esteemed as among the best; a composition of thoroughly modern touch, yet in the vein of the mystical Fray Luis de León of the sixteenth century. His poetry comprises many paraphrases or translations from the Portuguese, the German, and the English,—excellent renderings of Whittier, Lowell, and W. W. Story being found among the last. He was not a great poet, in any true sense. A poet must feel, and care; must have more than the eye and the word; must work from within. Valera is an accomplished writer of verse, of excellent taste, and serene wealth of culture; he had a splendidly incisive and active intellect; but he worked always from without. The artistic tenets that meant so much to him, and so much distinguished his work in fiction and literary criticism, can never make a poet; though it may be doubted, in these days especially, whether a poet can ever be made without them or their like. He was above all things a scholar and a critical essayist; a considerable number of his published volumes consist of collected essays or discourses before the Spanish Academy, covering such subjects as ‘The Women Writers of Spain,’ ‘St. Teresa,’ and the like,—not the moderns; ‘Studies of the Middle Ages’; ‘Liberty in Art’; and ‘The New Art of Writing Novels,’—largely a discussion of French Naturalism. ‘Cartas Americanas’ (American Letters) is a small volume, with a kindly touch, devoted to an inquiry into the merits of the current literature of the Spanish Americas.

Valera’s international fame as a novelist rests principally on ‘Pepita Jiménez,’ which appeared in 1874; but while it may be quite frankly admitted that none of his other novels quite comes up to this very remarkable book, in two at least of their number, ‘Doña Luz’ and ‘El Comendador Mendoza,’ he has produced work of the very first rank; and there is much solid stuff in ‘Las Ilusiones del Doctor Faustino’ and in ‘Juanita la Larga.’ Valera is not a born story-teller, that is certain; no more is he a reformer or a preacher. In fiction, he is just the artist; and the appeal of such is limited, as compared to that of writers of the other kinds. So Don Juan has remained caviar to the general, and is perhaps least appreciated in the works he seems most to care for himself, as Doctor Faustino. But his importance is quite out of proportion to the popularity of any book or books of his: ‘Pepita Jiménez’ was the work that awakened the world to the possibilities of Spanish Literature, and gave the newer Spanish authors room in the international community of letters. And though when he was writing it, he did not know, as he himself tells us, that he was writing a novel, and it was born of much reading of Santa Teresa, Luis de León, and other mystics, it is clear that in its production he was working as an artist, as well as a philosopher. His analytic powers are displayed even more fully in ‘Doña Luz’ and ‘Las Ilusiones del Doctor Faustino’; and in ‘El Comendador Mendoza’ he shows himself capable of conceiving a first-rate plot and working it out to the end. And he has the power of Balzac, whom he does not in the least resemble, of producing a personal atmosphere, which the attentive reader is quick to sense. So he may be written down the first artist of his time and country, and the writer whose taste is the surest and best. He holds that the object of a novel should be the faithful representation of human actions and passions, and the creation, through such fidelity to nature, of a beautiful work; and he considers it a debasement of a work of art to attempt, for instance, to prove theses by it, or to reduce it to any strictly utilitarian end. ‘Pepita’ is a novel of “character,” not of action. It has been complained that there is almost as great a lack of adventure in some of our modern fiction as there was a superabundance of it in the older sort; but no intelligent mind can fail to be carried along with the development of this most impressive and charming moral drama, slow, contemplative, and philosophic though the stages be by which it seems to move. How thoroughly, how exhaustively, are the situation and the problems of character worked out!

In ‘Pepita Jiménez,’ Valera is fortunate enough to have an almost elemental passion to treat,—a subject like some of those of Shakespeare: the moral crisis of a young ecclesiastic, torn between earthly and heavenly love. Don Luis, the son of a worldly father, comes home to the family estate in Andalusia for a short vacation, preparatory to taking orders. A handsome, well-built young man, he has been devoutly reared by his uncle, the dean of a cathedral in a distant town; and his head is full of the sincerest dreams of religious self-sacrifice, of exile, and even perchance martyrdom, in the Orient. Pepita is a very young widow, of but eighteen, the widow of a rich old man who had been very kind to her. It is springtime in flowery Andalusia; and Pepita’s discretion and reserve of character, her high-bred charm, her beauty, soon take hold upon Don Luis. The story is told chiefly in his letters to the dean. “The worst of it is,” he writes, “that with the life I am leading I fear I may become too worldly minded.” Soon it is: “He that loves the danger shall perish in it”; and finally an agony of appeal: “Oh, save me! Oh, take me away from here, or I am forever lost!” What was Pepita’s part in it? Did she love the handsome young theological student from the first? She loves him madly at last; and it is due to her own quite desperate persistence in the end that he is lost to the Church, and gained to secular life.

The author has not the gift of facile conversation: his characters rather dissertate to one another than talk. They incline to discuss at great length abstract questions of morals, theology, or taste; the pretty women only refrain from this at the cost of not talking at all. Even at the supreme moment of their probable parting forever, Luis and Pepita speak set orations. Still these orations are full of thought and have an innate interest.

In ‘Doña Luz’ (1878) we have again the same beautiful, high-bred kind of a woman as Pepita. She is “like a sun at its zenith.” As she passes in the street, the bystanders murmur with the exaggerated Andalusian gallantry, “There goes the living glory itself.” And again there is an interesting young priest; but all passes platonically. Doña Luz marries a brilliant man of the world, but he has sought her only for her fortune; she lives apart from him, and finds solace in her child.

‘Las Ilusiones del Doctor Faustino’ (The Illusions of Doctor Faustinus: 1876) is the most ambitious of Valera’s novels, but not correspondingly successful. It is a reminiscence of Faust; undertaking to show in the career of the poor and haughty young patrician, Mendoza, the many changes of purpose, belief, and fortune, the philosophic doubts and baffled aspirations, that may attend the life of man on earth. His own mother asks, “Para que sirve?” (Of what use is he?) An apparition who calls herself his “Immortal Friend” flits across his career from time to time; he falls among bandits; he has many love affairs in which he does not appear to advantage; and he finally commits suicide. ‘Pasarse de Listo’ (Overshot the Mark), 1878, is an account of Inesita and the young Count de Alhedin, who, with excessive circumspection, manage to involve in the appearance of the flirtation they two are really carrying on, Beatriz the married sister of the young girl; with the tragic result that the husband of Beatriz is led to jump off the Segovia Street Viaduct at Madrid, and kill himself. This book has been translated by Clara Bell, under the title of ‘Don Braulio.’

‘El Comendador Mendoza’ (Commander Mendoza), 1877, is a story of the last century, though nothing archaic in its form would distinguish the time from the present day. The Commander, come back with a fortune from Peru to his native village, finds there an old flame of his from Lima, Doña Blanca; and her daughter Clara, who is also his daughter. Doña Blanca, rigidly repentant and devout, desires that Clara should enter a convent, that she may not by marrying divert the wealth of her putative father into an illegitimate channel. The Commander performs prodigies of ingenuity and generosity to save the amiable Clara; and by stripping himself entirely of his property, gets her happily married to the man of her choice, without the public ever being cognizant of their secret. He is rewarded by securing for himself the hand of Lucia, a charming young friend of his daughter’s. She is represented as much preferring an elderly to a youthful lover; and such a lover is celebrated in a poem in which it is said that “The spirit burns undimmed beneath the snow with which the persistent labor of the mind has crowned his brow.” Though there is a carefully determined plot in ‘El Comendador Mendoza,’ and much more “action” and less introspection and quasi-philosophical speculation than in the other best work of Valera, it remains essentially a novel of character. The Comendador and Doña Blanca are an unforgetable pair; and the power of the two scenes in which they try the mettle, each of the other, is but the greater from the restraint with which the author handles them. Aside from the personal element, there is more than an adumbration here of the struggle of conscientious, sincere bigotry with perfectly honorable free-thinking, laid before us with refreshing detachment. Other books are ‘Currita Albornoz,’ 1890; ‘La Buena Fama’ (Good Name), 1894; ‘El Hechicero’ (The Sorcerer), 1895; and ‘Juanita la Larga’ 1895.