Juan Valera, whose full name is Juan Valera y Alcalá Galiano, was born on October 18, 1824, in Cabra, a hill town some thirty-five miles southeast of Córdoba, Spain. His parents were distinguished if not affluent, his mother of the Spanish nobility, his father a naval officer, and his maternal uncle the famous orator and politician Antonio Alcalá Galiano. Valera attended a good secondary school in Málaga from 1837 to 1840, studied law in Granada’s Colegio del Sacro Monte and in Madrid, and—back in Granada—graduated in 1844. Though an avid reader of literary classics, he was not a diligent student. It might be noted that many nineteenth century Spanish undergraduate law majors never intended a career in jurisprudence. Such degrees were closer to what would be considered today as the bachelor of arts. Valera, however, despite predictable excursions into the field of literature (a few poems in magazines and a volume of verses whose publication was subsidized by his father as a graduation present), actually attempted to practice law in Madrid.
Valera’s family connections gave him entrée into high society. It was a pleasant but unremunerative existence; he soon had to think of correcting his course. Diplomacy appeared a more likely choice, and, after a slow start, it proved a good one. He obtained an unofficial post in Naples, working for his friend the great Romantic author the Duque de Rivas, at the time Spanish Ambassador, from 1847 to 1849. Valera was sent to Lisbon in 1850 and to Rio de Janeiro in 1851. There followed a post in Dresden (1855) and a visit to Russia (1856).
Returning to Spain, Valera ran for the office of deputy (similar to the position of congressman) in 1858, an office he held during two not very outstanding terms. In 1865, he received his first really important diplomatic appointment as minister in Frankfurt. In 1868, Isabel II lost her throne; Valera became undersecretary of state for most of one year. He even helped choose Amadeo of Savoy as the new king of Spain in 1870 and was made director of public instruction, if only for a very short time. The king soon abdicated, leaving Valera out of political favor. For seven years, Valera devoted himself to writing.
During previous lulls in his public career, Valera had already managed to produce a volume of poetry in 1858, helped found two satiric literary magazines in the two succeeding years, and was editor in chief for the middle-of-the-road El contemporáneo (where his first, unfinished, novel Mariquita y Antonio appeared in 1861). Although he had only one book to his credit, the 1858 volume of poetry (an earlier one in 1844 had sold so poorly that he had had it withdrawn from the market), he was...
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