REVIEWED: August, 2020

In this beautifully detailed, thrilling historical novel, author Tim Ellis brings back to life the largely forgotten Juan Luis Vives, a Spanish Jew and leading Renaissance humanist who, in his time, was as widely respected as his friends and intellectual heavyweights Thomas More and Erasmus. Here, Vives poses as a Catholic to avoid the fires of the Inquisition but ends up entangled in King Henry VIII’s deadly war with the church.

The story picks up as Vives studies, writes and teaches in what is now Belgium, where he narrowly escapes the unmasking of his true identity. Despite the close calls, he’s beckoned to England to tutor Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Catherine is Henry’s first wife whom he now desperately wants to divorce—in defiance of Catholic teachings— because she has given him no sons.

Vives walks a swaying tightrope as both Henry and Catherine separately ask for his assistance to support their directly opposed demands. He must betray one, and whatever he decides could cost him his life. Adding to his predicament is the fact that Catherine belongs to the Spanish royal family whose Inquisition is burning Jews at the stake, including members of Vives’ own family. How could he ever support such an enemy?

Vives speaks through his secret diaries, discovered five centuries later, as he intimately tracks his tortured conscience. All the while, he clings to a dream that he could cleverly manipulate the king into allowing hunted Jews sanctuary in England.

The story rushes ahead with chilling urgency, and Ellis’s elegant prose brings it alive with telling detail: flesh burning at the stake; a lover whose troubles still haven’t “dimmed the spark of her pupil or sullied the white of her eye.” The author delivers complex, believable characters, framed by meticulous research to accurately portray the realities of the turbulent times.

This enthralling story is sure to please lovers of high drama, international intrigue, momentous history and psychological thrillers.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.






REVIEWED: August, 2020

A historical novel about the great 16th-century humanist Juan Luis Vives.

In the framing device of Ellis’ novel, an electrician in the present-day College of Bruges in Belgium opens the wall of a study and finds a centuries-old book. It’s the secret journal of one of the city’s most famous citizens: Juan Luis Vives, who was born in Spain in 1493, spent most of his life in the Netherlands, and made a fateful and contentious visit to Henry VIII’s England in the early 1520s. Vives was friends with fellow humanists Erasmus and Thomas More, and during the first part of his time in England, he was a tutor to King Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Mary (“this was to be my catapult to greatness, the chance to realise my dream,” Vives thinks when More arranges the position for him). Ellis’ tale follows the adventures of young Vives as he leaves his native Spain and encounters the strange world of England, where he must become accustomed to his new, Anglicized name (“John Lewis of Oxford”) and the shifting tensions between Henry and Queen Catherine of Aragon, whose turbulent marriage becomes the central topic of the land. Henry seeks to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, claiming that she’d previously had sex with his late brother, Arthur, which she adamantly denies—to Henry. However, she impulsively tells Vives that the claim is true and also that her baby boy, fathered by Arthur, was taken away from her on the pretext of it being stillborn. As the narrative moves forward, Vives must juggle his own domestic struggles with the possibility that he has “talked [himself] into treason.”

Ellis writes all of this with marvelous gusto that’s more reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) than of a more traditional Tudor novel. Vives not only addresses his diary as though it were a person; it also sometimes seems to address him right back. As a confidant of the queen, Vives refused to accept the validity of the king’s annulment and, as a result, he only narrowly escaped England with his life; in Ellis’ telling, the danger was compounded by the fact that Vives was also secretly an adherent of Judaism. As the story goes on, Ellis can’t resist the occasional bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing. When Vives visits the shrine of Thomas Becket with More, for instance, More says, “See how even the king’s greatest friend, his most favoured subject, can fall? But if God is with me, whom should I fear?” Months later, of course, More himself would be executed on the orders of his friend the king. However, the boisterous vivacity of Vives as a character remains appealing throughout. Early on, he discovers that he is “human rather than humanist,” and this canny emphasis is the guiding light of the book, allowing readers to avoid Vives’ forbiddingly abstruse scholarly writing. With this novel, Ellis effectively allows readers to root for a person that many may only know as a footnote to the story of More.

A fast-paced and richly engaging story about an intriguing historical figure.

REVIEWED: August, 2020

Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5

With its clear portrayal of inner conflict, The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives is a provocative, multicolored historical novel that examines hidden faith.

Tim Darcy Ellis’s intricate biographical novel, The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives, approaches the Spanish scholar and Renaissance humanist through absorbing journal entries set in sixteenth-century Europe.

In Flanders in 1522, Vives is gifted a diary and begins to record effusive commentary about his exile from Valencia. Direct addresses to the diary, rhetorical questions, everyday observations, and brutal memories of the Spanish Inquisition reveal Vives as a man with a capacious intellect who fears exposure and misses the family he left behind. His voice is, by turns, fluent, confessional, and hesitant, suiting the fact that he is determined to survive as an ambitious converso among foreigners, concealing his Jewish identity.

Vives’s doubts about his contemporaries mix with his hope that he can start a romance with Marguerite, the daughter of Jewish exiles. When his association with her leads authorities to confine him under the suspicion of “Judaising,” colorful Sir Thomas More, who wants Vives to tutor Princess Mary Tudor in England, helps him to leave Flanders. Throughout the novel, Vives is accompanied by Álvaro de Castro, a streetwise poet, confidante, and fellow Spanish converso whose devoutness is a fascinating counterpoint to Vives’s divided loyalties.

The book’s enhanced biographical details focus on Vives’s self-consciousness. His family tragedies are at first tempered by his wit, which fades as the story progresses, hinting at rising pressures on his character. His self-protective instincts, which he regards as cowardice, are threaded with bravado, while his secrecy and sometimes ingratiating manners are framed within the era’s horrifying persecutions. These add up to a layered personality whose determination to “choose life” pierces through his fears.

Vives’s attempts to fit in among luminaries continues in England. His passionate lectures regarding his ideals of a more equal, multi-faith society and education for the poor—despite the controversy of such topics and risk of exposing his Jewishness through them—fuel him. His beguilement over More’s daughter sets the stage for later events. It’s unsurprising when others discover the truth about Vives; how the discovery unfolds involves a climactic chain of mistakes with harsh consequences.

Other historical figures, about whom details are shared in a helpful cast list, are showcased through lively conversations that retain the period’s essence but are free of archaisms. Later sections rush through the details of Vives’s personal life, including his marriage to Marguerite and his family complications. The turmoil between the English king and queen, both of whom Vives tries to appease, inspires a tense sequence that underscores the consequences of Vives’s duplicity. This culminates with Vives’s humbling yet liberating realization that it’s not up to him to orchestrate freedom for Jewish people, as such work is ongoing.

In its clear portrayal of inner conflict, the novel humanizes Vives and concludes with a satisfying, circular return to Belgium. The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives is a provocative, multicolored historical novel that examines hidden faith.

Reviewed by Karen Rigby

REVIEWED: August, 2020

IR Rating: 4.6 out of 5

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.


A work of historical fiction, THE SECRET DIARIES OF JUAN LUIS VIVES chronicles the epoch-making adventures of Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives as he navigates the murky world of English politics during the reign of Tudor King Henry VIII.

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


REVIEWED: August, 2020

SPR Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Steeped in court drama, forbidden love, and the tension of dark history, The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives is the swirling, beautifully penned new novel from Tim Darcy Ellis. Based largely on true events and figures, this intense tale shines a new light on the motives and machinations of English royalty in the mid-16th century.

Juan Luis Vives, a “New Christian” fleeing from the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition, and the anti-Semitism that flowed so freely in the 1500s, is trying to survive and stay outside of suspicion in Bruges. A chance encounter with Sir Thomas More upends his life, leading him into the role as tutor to the princess of England. It quickly becomes clear that no one can escape the intrigues of the English court, making it very difficult to hide secrets that could cost Vives his position, freedom, and life.

He is a newly arrived and rapidly rising face in the halls of English power, but his heritage is undeniable, and the protagonist lies torn between two very different worlds, faced with difficult decisions at every turn. His vulnerability is on full display in many of the entries, and while these events happened nearly 500 years ago, the struggle feels timeless – true love and integrity versus safety and bowing to the powers that be. Navigating ingrained hatred with a frequently bit tongue, Vives is a captivating nexus around whom this story swirls.

With only a handful of fictional characters to fill in the narrative gaps, this book is a vivid portrait of England and Spain during one of their many tumultuous times. Historical novels often fail to be successful unless they are completely immersive; the devil is truly in the details, but Ellis has clearly done his research. Told with patient precision from the perspective of erudite classrooms and royal courts, local pubs and Christmas tables, this carefully crafted story unfolds in many unexpected directions, creating a narrative mosaic of culture, connection, philosophy, and unvarnished emotion.

The writing itself, in the form of diary entries, makes the narrative intimate and engaging, allowing readers to see every facet of Vives’ mind – his asides and uncertainties, offering an intimate level of access. However, the excess of dialogue within the diary entries jars with the form itself, as a diary is often the personal reflection of the writer, and would consist of more narration than transcription. Once this oddity is accepted, it becomes a natural quirk of the prose, and the quality of the writing is impeccable, seemingly being torn from another time.

The level of the prose is where this novel truly shines. Ellis masterfully mimics the heavily stylized writing of a 16th-century intellectual, with verbose descriptions that paint wonderful scenes, without being too flowery or esoteric. When the writing delves into the details of a particular room, or the intricacies of someone’s clothing or face, it is easy to feel transported, caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the enigmatic past.

A love letter to another time, The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives is both eloquent and accessible for all readers – an impressive balance that makes reading Ellis’ novel a richly rewarding escape.