Juan Valera was born in Cabra in 1824, the son of José Valera y Viaña and Dolores Alcalá Galiano, and after leaving school was sent to the Seminary of Malaga between 1837 and 1840, which in those days only admitted trainee priests. He had his first verses published in the magazine El Gualhorce, and in 1841 was sent to Sacro Monte College in Granada, where his poetry appeared in the magazine La Alhambra.
From there he moved to study law in Madrid, where he fell in love with the poetess Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a love which was not returned, although she did dedicate some poems to him. He failed his law degree and returned to Granada to try and catch up: here he succeeded in graduating in law in 1846, and in 1847 was appointed diplomatic attaché (without salary) to the Spanish Consulate in Naples by the Isturiz government. He returned to Madrid in 1849 but was unimpressed by the court, and soon secured another diplomatic appointment as attaché to the Spanish Embassy in Lisbon, this time with salary included. He was soon moving on again, and in 1851 Valera was appointed Secretary of the Delegation in the Spanish Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, an experience which is recalled in his novel Genio y figura (Genius and Fame). He was back in Madrid again from 1853 to 1857, working for the press and as part of the Duke of Osuna's entourage during a visit to Russia, a strange episode which he recounts in his letters to Leopoldo Augusto Cueto. He was named Member of Parliament for Archidona in 1858, and around this time, founded the satirical broadsheets El Cócora (The Bore) and El Contemporáneo (The Contemporary Man). He joined the Royal Academy of Language in 1861 and was named Minister of Public Instruction (that is, of Education) in 1872, although due to political ups and downs it was a short-lived appointment. From 1881 to 1883, he went back to his diplomatic career, serving in Lisbon, Washington, Brussels and Vienna. Old, sick and almost blind, having retired from public life and with only a handful of friends to keep him company, he died in Madrid on 18th April 1905.
The work of Juan Valera combines a lively romanticism which shines through in his eventful life and a deep-felt classicism, which led him to enjoy life to the full and gave him the restraint to keep to conventional literary genres. His extensive work sees him in the role of novelist, political writer in his articles and above all in his letters and finally, poet.
Juan Valera wrote his first well-known poem, "Fantasía" (Fantasy), at the age of sixteen and dreamed of becoming a poet. His poetry is carefully-worded and imbued with conventional values, although some find it cold, artificial and over-influenced by classical traditions.
The technique in his novels of narrating the story frame by frame, in which the reader is only allowed one fleeting glimpse of the situation at a time, is only comparable in style with the novelist Galdós. His depth of thought goes hand in hand with his canny observation of customs; however, although Valera's spirit is universal, his novels are by no means cosmopolitan in nature: the novels always take place on familiar territory they are always Cordoban novels, albeit from an objective viewpoint.
His first novel, Pepita Jiménez (1874), tells the love-story between a trainee priest and a young widow, who clash head-on with her father's wishes and the customs of the village. The story is told with marvellous sensitivity and masterful psychological technique, as we learn more and more about the characters narrated, in the third person, through the beady eye of her uncle, the cleric.
The same tendency continues, although perhaps less successfully, in Las ilusiones del Doctor Faustino (Dr. Faustino's Dreams) (1875), El comendador Mendoza (Commander Mendoza) (1877), Pasarse de listo (A Touch Too Clever) (1878) and Doña Luz (Lady Luz) (1879).
In 1895 he gave up diplomatic life completely, and despite being ill, produced some of his most intense novels, in which the characters are more fully-developed and convincingly portrayed. Perhaps the best of these is Juanita la Larga (Juanita the Long) (1985), followed by Genio y figura (Genius and Fame) (1897) and Morsamor (Walrus-love) (1899), in which the leading character, who roams the world only to return disillusioned to a monastery, may well be based on Valera himself.
Apart from the great novels, there are also the stories, in which his words weave a magical spell that rises above any notion of realism, which he reserves for his articles on popular characters and customs.
He was a great expert on Spanish life, as can be seen in his letters, and a highly knowledgeable historian, deeply involved in reality and yet often sitting on the sidelines with his masterful sense of irony. All in all, Juan Valera remains an author whose virtues have never been fully appreciated.