Voltaire’s Garden, by Lynda Aylett-Green

Katie Watters

Tolerance is the most valuable virtue.
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“One name was whispered with admiration, one quiet voice seemed to cut through the religious frenzy with questions that demanded an answer: the voice of Voltaire”

This fact-based novel stars Voltaire, the philosopher, Enlightenment writer, satirist and human rights campaigner, as the protagonist. As he evades King Louis’ men and local bishops, who want him silenced and his books burnt, he takes residence at his Chateau in Ferney and its beautiful gardens that he takes so much pride in. This remains the setting for which we are introduced to several characters, creating a social hot-pot of contemporary issues and historical references: “a wretched girl prying into everything, some kind of nervous student who kept disappearing, a secretary who disapproved of everything, an argumentative doctor, and a brace of poets who wondered about declaiming their latest stanzas”. Notably, Hugo, an ingenuous musical student from Toulouse who has been sleeping rough and on the run since the village priest set the mob on him finds refuge at Voltaire’s Chateau. His fictional character is symbolic of the many refugees and the persecuted that were helped by Voltaire.

The main philosophical issue that drives the plot of this novel is the Calas affair. Jean Calas was a merchant and Protestant living in France, an official Catholic society. He was tried, tortured and executed for the murder of his son, despite his protestations of innocence. In the milieu of harsh oppression of Protestantism, initiated by King Louis XIV, Calas became a symbolic victim of religious intolerance. Whilst many see it as dangerous business, by setting yourself against the Church, Voltaire has a campaign to clear their name with a petition to have the brother Donat spared and the whole family pardoned.

Lynda Aylett Green focuses on Voltaire’s intervention, as we read on with anticipation of how his crusade to get Calas’ sentence overturned will play out.

Whilst commenting on the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary civil liberties, Lynda Aylett Green also brings Voltaire’s famous facetiousness to the page. Amongst his peace-making mission, the folk hero makes witty remarks, describing politics as “no more than the art of deliberately lying at every opportunity”.

We also meet other French Philosophers and famous historical figures throughout the novel. Denis Diderot makes an appearance where his current unfinished creation of his Encyclopédie is referenced: “he’s working on a communication system for the dumb”. Moreover, Marie du Deffand’s long-standing correspondence with English writer Horatio Walpole plays an element in Voltaire’s mission to achieve justice for the Calas family.

The religious turmoil and social issues discussed in Voltaire’s Garden are contrasted with a wildlife theme throughout; offering some beautiful descriptions and charming moments between Voltaire and his gardener Merlin.

Lynda Aylett Green transports us to 18th century Geneva, at the heart of a socio-cultural context of underlying religious conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, growing demands for social reform, and Enlightenment thinking. With Voltaire as the driving force, social and philosophical issues are deliberated through his wise and witty words with the prevailing argument that tolerance is the most valuable virtue.


Voltaire’s Garden by Lynda Aylett-Green is out now. Katie Watters is an Editorial Assistant at Aspects of History.