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Juan Valera (1824–1905). Pepita Jimenez.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticism and Interpretation. By Coventry Patmore

IN this work of Juan Valera we find that complete synthesis of gravity of matter and gaiety of manner which is the glittering crown of art, and which out of Spanish literature is to be found only in Shakespeare, and even in him in a far less obvious degree. It is only in Spanish literature, with the one exception of Dante, that religion and art are discovered to be not necessarily hostile powers; and it is in Spanish literature only, and without any exception, that gaiety of life is made to appear as being not only compatible with, but the very flower of that root which in the best works of other literatures hides itself in the earth, and only sends its concealed sap through stem and leaf of human duty and desire. The reason of this great and admirable singularity seems mainly to have been the singular aspect of most of the best Spanish minds toward religion. With them, religion has been, as it was meant to be, a human passion; they have regarded dogma as the form of realisable, and, by them, realised experience; and the natural instincts of humanity as the outlines of the lineaments of the Divinity—“very God and very man.” Witness the writings of their greatest saints and theologians, in which dogma is, as it was, fused in, and becomes psychology, instead of remaining, as it has done with us, a rock, indeed of refuge to many, but a rock of stumbling and offence to many more, and of these especially such as have been endowed with the artistic temperament.

“Pepita Jiménez” is essentially a “religious novel,” none the less so because it represents the failure of a good young aspirant to the priesthood to attain a degree of sanctity to which he was not called, and depicts the working in his aspirations of a pride so subtle as to be very venial, though, in some degree, disastrous. One of the many points in which Catholic philosophy shows itself superior to the philosophy of Protestant religionists in the knowledge of the human mind is its distinct recognition of the fact that there are as many degrees of human capacity for holiness as for any other kind of eminence, and that for most men a very moderate degree of spirituality is the utmost for which they are entitled to hope. An ardent Protestant, misinterpreting the words, “Be ye perfect as I am perfect,” is apt to think that he is nothing if not a saint, whereas Juan Valera knew that to be a saint, as to be a poet, is to be about one in twenty millions, and he has made a very amusing as well as a very useful book out of the vain strivings of his hero for—

  • “Heroic good, target for which the young
  • Dream in their dreams that every bow is strung;”
  • and the course of experience by which he is brought to conclude—
  • “That less than highest is good, and may be high.”
  • In consequence of the characteristics I have endeavoured to indicate, this novel, though expressly “religious” in its main theme and most of its details, is as “natural,” concrete, and wholesomely human and humanly interesting as one of Sir Walter Scott’s. There is in it no sense of dislocation or incompatibility between the natural and the spiritual. From the dainty, naïve, innocently coquettish, and passionate Pepita, who is enraged by her lover’s pretensions to a piety which, though she is devoted to her beautifully adorned “Infant Jesus,” she cannot understand, and in which she sees only an obstacle to the fulfilment of her love for him, to the saintly ecclesiastic, who, almost from the first, sees the incapacity of his pupil, Don Luis, for the celibate heights to which he aspires, but who understands life in all its grades too well to look upon his strivings and his “fall,” as Don Luis at first esteems it, with other than a good-humoured smile, all is upon one easy ascending plane and has an intelligible unity.—From “A Spanish Novelette,” in “Religio Poetæ”(1893).