Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Tim Darcy Ellis, Author of The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives

16 November 2020

Special Guest Post by Tim Darcy Ellis, Author of The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1522, The Spanish Netherlands, Juan Luis Vives, a renowned academic, has fled Spain to avoid the fires of the Inquisition, yet even here he is not safe. When England's Sir Thomas More offers him the role of tutor to Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, he eagerly accepts. While publicly navigating life as a 'New Christian,' Vives is quickly drawn into the secretive and dangerous world of London's Jewish community. With a foot in each world, 
he is torn between the love of two women

When I first stumbled across the name Juan Luis Vives - quite by accident - I was just blown over. I started looking for the novel, or the film, but I couldn't find it. So I had a reason to write and a sudden sense of purpose; this man's incredible story just had to be brought into the light.

Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) is one of those forgotten players of the Tudor narrative: a footnote to the story of Thomas More, a sometime friend of Catherine of Aragon, a tutor to Princess Mary (from 1523 to 1526). He was a foreigner, perhaps a Jew, who was considered 'subversive' by Cardinal Wolsey and during the second half of the sixteenth century, his writings were banned by the Jesuits, the theologians, the Pope and the Inquisitor General. 

If you scratch beneath the surface, though, you'll find a remarkable man. He led an extraordinary life, and he contributed significantly to European social history. His books were translated into most European languages - and Arabic, some were reprinted over a hundred times (in Protestant lands) before the end of the sixteenth century.

Vives was a humanist philosopher who was the first European to write about the education of women. He considered that the education of a woman was just as important as the education of a man. He firmly believed that women's roles were not limited to producing heirs or as acting as pawns in dynastic power struggles. 

He championed the rights of the poor and the uneducated, he also advocated for a national health service, funded by the state, not the church, and for a league of nations. Vives even wrote about the rights of animals. He was a pacifist, and he was unafraid to challenge Henry VIII, The Pope, The Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish Archbishops and Inquisitors.

Vives was born to a family of Spanish Jews in Valencia in 1492. That was, of course, the year of the decree of Alhambra, that expelled the Jews from Spain. Although his parents made a public conversion to Catholicism in 1491, within the next thirty years, the Inquisition had destroyed them and most of his extended family. 

Juan Luis Vives left Spain at the age of sixteen (for the Sorbonne) and never returned. He became closely acquainted with Erasmus and Thomas More, and settled amongst a community of Spanish Jews in Bruges, who were then living as 'New Christians'. He made several visits to the English court in the 1520s, and was a lecturer at the newly finished Corpus Christ in Oxford. Once in England, he became closely entangled in the royal divorce between Catherine and Henry.

I set the scene of the book by giving an introduction to the characters that feature; only four of whom were fictional. I deliberately chose the first-person voice because I felt that Vives negotiated life with a forever bitten tongue. I wanted to give him his human voice back, and for the reader to experience his emotions. As a Spanish Jew living in self-imposed exile, Vives wrote cryptically; some have called it 'abstruse,' and I had to dig deep to find the real man. 

Vives avoided reference to the terrible events of the early 1500s, and few of his personal letters have survived, so I had to read between the lines of his life story. I studied everything I could find about Vives and the academic commentaries about him. Key to my understanding of the man was Foster Watson's seminal work from 1908, 'Tudor School Boy Life - the dialogues of Juan Luis Vives.' I also wanted to learn everything that I could about his personal life and the experiences of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the sixteenth century.

As a former Museum of London Archaeologist, I was intimately acquainted with the areas of London that are mentioned in my book, that experience helped me to bring those scenes to life in a sensory, three dimensional way. I wanted to write about the fringes of the old city: areas like Houndsditch, just outside the city walls, where my family, the Elishas (who sneakily creep into the novel) lived, and where immigrants tended to settle.

In terms of my writing processes, my feeling is that, with historical fiction, you simply have to go there. Writing in the first person, I needed to be brave enough to become the character, if only for an hour or two, each day. It was like being a character actor. I had to allow myself to freefall until I felt that Vives was writing through me. I don't honestly know if I am doing him justice or not, but, by consistently going there, as best I could, I was able to write authentically, and I could keep his voice consistent. 

That could be draining at times, when, for example, as a lecturer at Oxford, he discovers the gruesome fate of his father in Spain. Vives felt that connection with the soul was vital, and that clarity of speech was essential. So I had to channel all of that, it was rather like being a character actor, and was a marvellous escape from the real world.

I also felt that, despite the darkness of the Inquisition, that I still had to have fun in this novel, the Tudors were not all a glum lot. Tudor era novels can seem dark, speeding towards the inevitable the grisly fate of the main characters. I tried to get around that with banter, practical jokes, and, in the comfort of my own home, by whiteboarding relationships. Vives often says, 'what you can laugh at, you can rise above.' 

He has a daring exchange with the Henry VIII - admitting to the king that he wanted to psychoanalyse him. In real life, he warned Henry against his arrogance. Thomas More bows to Vives's intellect, but he is committed to staying one step ahead of him. Although More is becoming increasingly insecure during the period of the novel, the witty banter between the two of keeps things fresh and real.

There is a beautiful bond between Margaret Roper (the daughter of Thomas More) and Vives: one that can't ever be thoroughly enjoyed or explored. They were both married, and they understood commitment and fidelity. Still, they couldn't deny their feelings for one another. A writer has to take a stance on Anne Boleyn. Anne was so amazing, and as soon as she loses her head, as far as I am concerned, the Tudor narrative loses its pazazz, its greatest asset. I love Anne, and I was working against my admiration of, and sympathies towards her in my book. Vives, who in my novel first meets Anne in Paris (historically plausible), acknowledges her wit and intelligence, and they consider working together, but soon discover that they can't. He has tremendous loyalty to the beleaguered Catherine of Aragon.

In reality, Vives changed the stuffy pedagogy of the English universities; he encouraged the broader education of women; he also set the framework for secular care of the poor and the sick. Many of his ideas were put into action throughout protestant Europe in the later sixteenth century and beyond. Many European institutions are named after him, yet, he still fell between the cracks. 

That's probably because he didn't fit into any of the camps - not Spanish enough to be an honourable Spaniard. He also wasn't Jewish enough - living life with the outward appearance of a New Christian - but surrounding himself with other Spaniards of Jewish origin to be taken up as a Jewish hero. He certainly wasn't English enough to be considered English, and he ended up falling foul of the king in house arrest.

By giving Vives a voice in The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives, I hope that my novel brings the epoch-making adventures of this incredible man back to life. 

Tim Darcy Ellis

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About the Author

Tim Darcy Ellis (BA BSc, MHSc) is a writer, physiotherapy business owner and formerly a professional archaeologist. Tim studied Archaeology at the University of York (BA Hons 1988) and as a professional archaeologist, worked on sites throughout England and Wales. He held posts at the Museum of London and the British Museum's medieval galleries. Tim is currently Managing Director and Principal Physiotherapist of Excel Physiotherapy and Wellness. He qualified as a physiotherapist at the University of East London in 1998. He moved to Sydney in 2000 where he completed his master's degree in 2002. Tim is chief writer of Excel Life magazine: writing and teaching extensively on health and wellness and specializing in the treatment of complex hip and pelvic pain. Find out more at Tim's website and follow him on Twitter @darcy_author

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Tony for the opportunity to blog about my research and writing processes for The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives


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