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"Oh," said my grandmother, "it must be nice to be religious. My upbringing was deficient in that respect. Still, I've got the garden — that brings me a great deal of pleasure." Struck by her choice of substitute for the implied comforts of religion — the garden — I wondered at a small coincidence.

Before dropping round to see her I'd been reading a little book from Peirene Press. Mr Darwin's Gardener, by Kristina Carlson, is billed as a "postmodern Victorian novel" about troubled faith and finding solace in the natural world. It interested me because I'm related to Darwin, and I'm a woman of faith — plus I love gardening.

The eponymous gardener is Thomas Davies: "His wife died at the age of thirty-two, and both of his children are disabled or sick." One Sunday in the late 1870s, as Downe's villagers gather in church, Davies stays away. He's a loner with a reputation for eccentricity, and grief has driven him farther into himself. Villagers wonder how to help him bear the burden. They worry he lacks the strength to carry on, the kind of strength faith can bring.

As gardener at Down House, Thomas Davies knows about natural selection. Is that enough to make him lose his faith? One villager remarks how Mr Darwin's books "lend support to those who want to deny the existence of God. Thomas Davies is bound to be one of them." Bound to be? Davies still prays: "I pray in anger and disbelief. I pray to a God who does not exist. I pray against my better judgement." It might be sorrow, not science, troubling his faith: the sorrow of losing a wife so young, of seeing illness and misfortune affect children.

Muriel Spark called it "the only problem" — the problem of suffering. My grandmother's parents were of a generation who suffered greatly in the First World War. Her mother lost two brothers, one of whom was the brilliant young mathematician David Hume Pinsent, remembered by his closest friend Wittgenstein in the dedication of Tractatus. If my grandmother's upbringing lacked religion is it any wonder, considering the loss of such fine young men?

For Darwin's gardener "despair is not the hardest thing in life — the absence of hope is". Whether it's Thomas Davies out in his vegetable field or my grandmother pruning roses, gardens are full of hope. An outward sign of an inward grace? Or is the material world all there is? So the faith debate rumbles on, generating copy, selling books, and it will do for as long as people continue to question the existence of God. The entangled bank is forever bankable.

 
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