The early modern period in Europe was a time of incredible instability. Economic depressions were the norm in Northern Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and large swaths of England and France. Wars were endemic, with power politics and religion playing leading roles in massive bloodletting. Despite the darkness, great men and women of courage and intellectual curiosity also defined the age as one of scientific discovery, humanism, and scholarship.
One of the great titans of the early modern period was Spanish scholar Juan Luis Vives, the central character in author Tim Darcy Ellis’s novel, THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES. In Ellis’s tale, Vives is the embodiment of the cosmopolitanism of the intellectual elite during the Renaissance. Ellis’s Vives, just like the real one, was a Spaniard who spent the majority of his life in Belgium and served for a time in the court of English King Henry VIII. Ellis adds a few interesting characteristics to his Vives, such as making him a secret follower of Judaism and thus a major outlaw according to the thinking of his own Catholic monarch. Overall, Ellis’s Vives adheres to the historical reality more often than naught.
The story begins when an electrician in the Belgian city of Bruges stumbled upon Vives’s journal while working at the College of Bruges (also known as the College of Europe). The journal contains an account of Vives’s time spent in England, where he was re-christened as John Lewis of Oxford in order to serve King Henry VIII. Vives received a front-row seat to Henry’s troubled marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon—a marriage which Vives tries to salvage despite knowing that Catherine slept with Henry’s deceased brother Arthur and gave birth to a son and heir as a result. The novel follows Vives as he tries to mend the marriage and the relationship between England and Spain, all the while recognizing the dangers of Henry’s increasingly authoritarian and erratic rule.
THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES is a sublime chronicle of one of the most fascinating epochs in European history. Ellis draws his characters so wonderfully, and none is better than the lead. The smart, charming, and earnest humanist is depicted as the embodiment of a better world to come. Where Ellis occasionally trips up is in trying to wrangle too much history into his narrative, such as Vives’s ruminations on the fate of men like Sir Thomas More and other future martyrs of King Henry’s reign. Such blunt foreshadowing could have been handled better. This criticism aside, THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES should be a pleasure for history buffs and novices alike. It provides a pleasant introduction into the turbulence of the Renaissance and the intellectual ferment created by men like Vives.
Tim Darcy Ellis’s THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES is a fast-moving, highly enjoyable historical drama, which features one of Western civilization’s most interesting men during the dazzling age of the Renaissance.
~Benjamin Welton for IndieReader