Juan Valera: Biography And Works

Juan Valera (1824-1905) was a notable writer from 19th century Spain. He stood out in all genres of literature: he was a novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, chronicler, playwright, columnist and critic, as well as leaving an extensive collection of travel diaries and epistles.

However, despite his extensive and recognized literary work, his personality as a critic was one of the most important in the author’s life.

Along with his role as a writer, the fact that he was several times ambassador of the Spanish kingdom also stands out. Represented Spain in its diplomatic corps before numerous kingdoms and countries.

He received innumerable titles, orders and decorations from Spain, as well as from several of the countries he visited in his lifetime. He was also jurisprudent.

His marked critical eye and skill as an essayist earned him a position as a member of the Royal Spanish Academy, as well as the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.


Birth and family

Juan Valera y Alcalá-Galiano was born on October 18, 1824 in Córdoba, specifically in the town of Cabra. His father was José Valera y Viaña, a retired officer of the Spanish Navy for his liberal ideals, and his mother was Dolores Alcalá-Galiano y Pareja, Marchioness of Paniega.

The Valera Alcalá Galiano couple had, in addition to Juan, two other daughters; Sofía (who was Duchess of Malakoff), and Ramona (Marchioness of Caicedo). Juan Valera had a half brother, who was the son of his mother, Dolores, and a man whom she previously married, Santiago Freuller, a Swiss general in the service of Spain. The stepbrother was named José Freuller y Alcalá-Galiano.

First studies

In 1837, at the age of 13, Juan Valera studied philosophy at the Seminary of Malaga. These 3-year studies were of great importance to the young author.

During that time he nurtured his romantic spirit with readings from capital authors: Shakespeare, Voltaire, Byron, Victor Hugo, Zorrilla, among others.

First publications

His first writings were poems that he published in a Malaga newspaper El Guadalhorce . He also dedicated himself to learning other languages.

He translated some fragments of Lord Byron’s Manfred , and composed others in imitation of the Lammartine style. Her readings had an important turn: she went from disorderly readings to markedly reading the Latin classics.

A few years later, and thanks to the praise of his mother, the young Juan Valera left for Madrid to complete his law studies. This is how in 1844 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in jurisprudence and in 1846, at the age of 22, he obtained a degree.

Literary life in Madrid

After graduation, and still unemployed, Juan Valera began to attend theaters and literary gatherings in Madrid, although always “secretly” or incognito at first.

Because of the ease of speech he had and the simple way in which he proved to be a man of the world, he enlivened many of those meetings.

Diplomatic career in Naples and love affairs

In 1847, and thanks to noble friends of the father, Juan Valera was added in Naples ad honorem (without any type of salary). Despite not being endorsed by the state, the writer took office and was exceptionally well managed while at the Naples Legation.

On March 16, 1847, he left for Naples, where he had several love affairs, of which he was recorded in his travel letters and diaries. These love trials were eventually published while he was still alive and without his consent.

One of the adventures was with a woman nicknamed “La Saladita” and then another with Lucia Palladi, Marchioness of Bedmar and princess of Cantacuceno, whom he affectionately called “The Greek lady” or “The dead woman”, due to her paleness. These love affairs were popular knowledge because they were published in his letters and newspapers in Spain without the permission of the author.

Meeting with Mr. Serafín Estébanez and return to Madrid

In 1849 he met Don Serafín Estébanez Calderón, who was a great influence in his life. Estébanez was a scholar of Arabic, numismatics and an inveterate bibliophile. This man molded and prepared Juan’s prose and verse in Castilian.

That same year, Juan returned to Madrid, although he quickly felt weary of Madrid life. He tried to be a deputy in Córdoba, which he ended up abandoning.

Some years passed totally in vain. Juan did not write or read, nor did he have a new job. He was only in charge of attending cafes and gatherings, like that for a year.

Appointment in Lisbon and return to letters

After that time, Valera realized that it was necessary to generate money again. On August 26, he was appointed number attaché of the Lisbon Legation, with a fixed salary this time.

From there he traveled to Rio de Janeiro as secretary of the Legation. At that time he published Genio y figura, a humorous novel with many biographical anecdotes.

In 1853 Juan Valera returned to Madrid and published various articles in the press, as well as in the Spanish magazine of both worlds , where he published an article on Spanish Romanticism that was very well received.

In 1857 the liberal government was established in Spain and Valera agreed to be part of the diplomatic corps that was in charge of traveling to Dresden, Germany, and then to Russia.

By then, and at the age of 33, Juan Valera was recognized and respected in the most diverse literary circles inside and outside of Spain.

Growing fame

He founded the Peninsular Magazine , in which he published several of his poems and some essays. At the same time, he collaborated in other magazines, such as El Semanario Pintoresco Español , La Discusión , El Museo Universal  or  La América , where he published articles of literary interest.

Other appointments and constant publications

In 1858 he was elected deputy to the Cortes for Archidona. While that was an entirely political position, he was never further removed from politics than back then.

He became interested in founding the newspaper La Malva . In 1860 he collaborated with great frequency in El Cócora , a satirical magazine; and in December of that same year he became chief editor of El Contemporáneo , another newspaper.

In this last newspaper he published a large number of in-depth articles, other loose articles, chronicles, gazettes, on literary matters, poetry and other miscellaneous topics such as criticism and plays. In February of the following year, he published his novel Mariquita y Antonio in installments .

Entrance to the Royal Spanish Academy

The following year, 1861, Juan Valera published an essay entitled On freedom in art , with which he was admitted as a member of the Royal Spanish Academy. Simultaneously, he married Dolores Delavat, in France.

Years later the revolution of 1868 exploded, of which Valera was a meticulous chronicler. His chronicles and letters to his relatives revealed with great precision everything that happened at that time.

Creative maturity

Between 1867 and 1871 Juan Valera published in 3 volumes the translations from German into Spanish of the Poetry and Art of the Arabs in Spain and Sicily , by the German writer Schack.

Juan Valera was a polyglot, spoke Spanish, English, German, French and Italian. He had a prodigious memory , as well as a very vast culture. For these reasons he was considered one of the most cultured men of his time.

In 1872 Juan Valera was appointed Director General of Public Instruction, a position he left shortly after and from which he ended in a political retirement of almost ten years.

Creativity and Pepita Jiménez

At that time his creative work was unstoppable. His best writings saw the light in that period. In that period of time he wrote what was his best novel, Pepita Jiménez (1874).

This was a psychological work where the author more fully addressed his aesthetic ideals (art for art’s sake). The novel narrated the love that arose between Pepita and the seminarian Luis Vargas.

The epistolary style influences the form of the narrative, thus fusing aesthetics and narrative structure. This novel was turned into an opera by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz.

Tireless inspiration

During this period, Juan Valera even managed to write one novel per year, in addition to numerous articles and essays.

It is worth mentioning Las illusiones del doctor Faustino (1874), a critical novel with great autobiographical content, and  El Commander Mendoza (1876), where the author reflected the difference in ages of their marriage in the protagonists (50 years he and 18 the woman) .

This autobiographical tone was very common in his work, a similar difference between the ages of couples made it later in Juanita la Larga (1895).

Another of his novels of the aforementioned heyday was, although the least successful according to Juan Valera himself, Pasarse de Sentido (1878).

During that time, he also met Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, with whom he exchanged extensive correspondence on issues of literature and highly valuable personal creation.

He confessed to him about the status and evolution of his works, such as the novel Doña Luz (1879) or the philosophical-loving dialogue Asclepigenia (1878).

Back to diplomacy

Finally the creative period ended in 1881, and it continued until 1893 when he was appointed Minister of Spain in Lisbon, then in Washington, Brussels and Vienna. Although not because of this distancing, he stopped writing articles, essays and even poems.

By then the press went out of their way to publish him, and the most scathing critics praised him, naming him even Spain’s “first literary man” since the Golden Age. His reach was such that his American Letters were published in the New World.

Last years and death

As of 1895 he retired from diplomatic life and went to live in Cuesta de Santo Domingo. He published three novels: Juanita la Larga (1895), Genio y figura (1897) and Morsamor (1899).

His health declined markedly: his eyesight worsened and his travels stopped. He even needed a secretary-guide who helped him with the readings and who took dictation of his articles and writings.

Although he remained lucid until the last of his days, Juan Valera found himself very physically impaired and, on April 18, 1905, he died.


Juan Valera’s work is concerned at all times to maintain a care for style and aesthetics. Thus, his novels, while realistic, treated life in an idealized way.

The main postulate of Valera was, in short, that the purpose of art is to seek beauty. Grief and suffering were nuanced or even suppressed from his work.


His novels include: Pepita Jiménez (1874), considered the best, The illusions of doctor Faustino (1874), Commander Mendoza (1876), Going on the ready (1878), Doña Luz (1879), Juanita la Larga (1895) , Genio y figura (1897), Morsamor (1899) and Elisa, the “malagueña” (unfinished).


Among his stories are: Andalusian stories and jokes (1896), The green bird (sf), The good fame (sf), Garuda or the white stork (sf), The doll (sf), The prehistoric bermejino (sf).

Theater plays

Among his plays are: Asclepigenia (1878), Atahualpa’s revenge (sf), Havoc of love and jealousy (sf), The best of the treasure (sf).

Most notable essays

– On the nature and character of the novel (1860).

– Critical studies on literature, politics and customs of our days (1864).

– Critical studies on philosophy and religion (1883-89).

– Notes on the new art of writing novels (1887).

– Of the romanticism in Spain and of Espronceda (sf).

– Literary criticism (compiled in 14 volumes).

– Popular poetry as an example of the point where the vulgar idea and the academic idea about the Spanish language should coincide (nd).

– On Don Quixote and on the different ways of commenting on him and judging him (1861).

– From the pure – blooded of our culture in the eighteenth century and the present (s f. . ).


His titles and decorations include: Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos III (Spain), Commander of the Spanish and American Order of Isabel la Católica (Spain), Grefier of the Order of the Golden Fleece (Spain), Knight of the Grand Cross in brilliants of the Order Pius IX (Vatican) and Officer of the Order of the Legion of Honor (France).

As a diplomat, he was His Majesty’s Ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, to the King of Portugal, the King of Belgium, and to the United States.

He was also a Member of the Royal Spanish Academy and the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, he was also a Corresponding Member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences.


  1. Juan Valera. (S. f.). Spain: Wikipedia. Recovered from: wikipedia.org
  2. Juan Valera. (S. f.). (N / a): Biographies and Lives. Recovered from: biografiasyvidas.com
  3. Juan Valera. (S. f.). Spain: Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library. Recovered from: cervantesvirtual.com
  4. Juan Valera. (S. f.). Spain: Spain is culture. Recovered from: xn--espaaescultura-tnb.es
  5. Juan Valera. (S. f.). (N / a): The Castilian corner. Recovered from: elrinconcastellano.com

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