The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives: A Novel

  • Review
By – July 2, 2021

Juan Luis Vives, often a foot­note in six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Tudor his­to­ry, was a man of intel­lect, vision, and deep secrets. This riv­et­ing and mem­o­rable his­tor­i­cal nov­el opens four-hun­dred years lat­er when an elec­tri­cian work­ing at the Col­lege of Bruges punc­tures a wall and unex­pect­ed­ly finds Vives’s secret diaries, along with a few all-telling pos­ses­sions in the room Vives occu­pied when he taught the sons of the nobil­i­ty there. The diary por­trays Vives’s authen­tic voice, and the stream-of-con­scious­ness nar­ra­tion is filled with beau­ti­ful, descrip­tive lan­guage and metaphors.

Vives was born in 1493 in Valen­cia, Spain, a year after the Alham­bra Decree of Fer­di­nand and Isabel­la sig­naled the offi­cial Inqui­si­tion. His Jew­ish fam­i­ly is out­ward­ly con­vert­ed, but in 1509 he flees Spain after wit­ness­ing rel­a­tives and friends being burned at the stake for heresy. He goes to France to study and teach before mov­ing on to Flan­ders. His rep­u­ta­tion as a human­ist, a man of ideas, and a great thinker earns him a prized rep­u­ta­tion and the respect of acad­e­mia. Yet, he must always jug­gle his New Chris­t­ian per­sona and prac­tices with his inner Judaism and guilt over leav­ing his fam­i­ly behind in Spain. He can­not let the hate­ful and dan­ger­ous cler­ics, stu­dents, and col­leagues ever doubt his alle­giances. The ter­rors of the Inqui­si­tion have found a foothold through­out all of Europe.

Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, a staunch Catholic, a states­man, and con­fi­dante of Hen­ry VIII, is impressed by Vives’s wit and wis­dom. He secures a posi­tion for Vives to tutor Princess Mary, Hen­ry and Cather­ine of Aragon’s daugh­ter and only heir to the throne at Oxford in Eng­land. Vives sees the appoint­ment as a sal­va­tion from the uncer­tain­ty and ten­sion of life in Bruges and eager­ly awaits his pas­sage to Eng­land. More places a com­pan­ion, Alvaro de Cas­tro, with Vives. Is the man friend or foe, care­tak­er or spy? Vives must watch care­ful­ly. This new posi­tion pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to secure his family’s escape from Valen­cia to the safe­ty of Eng­land, where Hen­ry shows less ani­mos­i­ty towards Jews. Thus begins the cat and mouse game Vives plays that puts him in con­stant jeop­ardy as he strug­gles with his inner tur­moil. Vives dubs him­self El Toro Bra­vo, and con­sid­ers him­self a lit­tle fish swim­ming with great fish” as he hopes to res­cue his people.

Vives finds him­self heav­i­ly embroiled in the intrigue, pol­i­tics, and reli­gious issues of Hen­ry, Cather­ine, the Boleyn fam­i­ly, Car­di­nal Wolsey, More, and his secret love, Meg Rop­er. As John Lewis, his angli­cized name, he walks a pre­car­i­ous path while try­ing to hide his iden­ti­ty and motives. His inter­ac­tion with these pow­er­ful play­ers’ con­fi­dences and plots leads him to be betrayed, impris­oned, saved, reviled, and revered.

The name of Juan Luis Vives should now be remem­bered for more than being a tutor to Princess Mary. He was a man ahead of his time. He was a pro­po­nent of edu­ca­tion for women, tax­ing the wealthy so the state, not just the Church, could pro­vide ser­vices and care, and equal­i­ty for all people.

The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives brings the read­er into a mas­ter­ful recre­ation of his­to­ry. Detailed descrip­tions cap­ture towns, cities, peo­ple, dress, smells, sights, and sounds of the time peri­od. Read­ers will delight in eaves­drop­ping on the ver­bal spar­ring between Hen­ry and Cather­ine, chan­nel­ing the Boleyn family’s machi­na­tions to pow­er, and liv­ing among the secret Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of faith dur­ing the Inquisition.

Tim Dar­cy Ellis’s aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground and pas­sion for the past is evi­denced in his extreme­ly well-researched sto­ry­telling. This rich, enjoy­able, and cap­ti­vat­ing nov­el is alive with romance, adven­ture, sus­pense, and struggle.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions