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.