The Maids of Biddenden

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Pub Date 16 Jun 2022 | Archive Date 22 May 2022

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The Maids of Biddenden is inspired by the real-life story of conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, born in 1100 into a wealthy family from a small Kent village.

Joined at the hip, the sisters overcome fear and hostility to grow into gifted and much-loved women – one a talented musician and song-writer and the other a caring healer and grower of medicinal plants. Entangled in the struggles for power and influence of the great Kent nobles of the time, they achieve much in their lifetimes and leave behind a legacy in Biddenden that survives to this day. 

This is the heart-warming and inspirational story of two remarkable women leading one joint life, challenging adversity to become the best they can be. 

 About the Author 

GD Harper is a former marketer turned full-time author. He has previously written a series of three very popular psychological thrillers, Love’s Long Road, A Friend in Deed and Silent Money. He was born in Kent, raised in Glasgow and now lives in Sussex, not a million miles away from Biddenden.

The Maids of Biddenden is inspired by the real-life story of conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, born in 1100 into a wealthy family from a small Kent village.

Joined at the hip, the sisters...

Advance Praise

‘A fantastic quality of prose.’ Impress Prize

‘Completely entranced.’ Flash 500 Prize

‘A remarkable story.’ Page Turner Writer Award

‘A fantastic quality of prose.’ Impress Prize

‘Completely entranced.’ Flash 500 Prize

‘A remarkable story.’ Page Turner Writer Award

Available Editions

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ISBN 9780993547874
PRICE £9.99 (GBP)

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Average rating from 12 members

Featured Reviews

Based on real characters who lived in the early 12th century, the author has woven a very interesting tale about two girls joined at the hips from birth. Not much is known about Eliza and Mary. Both sisters lived their first 6 years hidden in a convent. When their keep got too expensive for the nuns, their father took them in his home. However, before this decision was made, there was much talk about what to actually do with these girls! Killing them was an option, as they were considered devil work.....
What I enjoyed in this novel is that the author adequately outlined people's superstitions, fear of the unknown of those days and the resulting behaviour of the nuns and the community towards the girls. Luckily not all of them felt that way and luckily for Eliza and Mary sister Agnes did nurture the sisters.... Alternating chapters written in the first person reveal how the girls feel towards each other and what they actually physically feel... I also found fascinating to read about how the father and sister Agnes fought to get the disabled girls integrated into the community.... Will they succeed? Will Mary and Eliza enjoy a fullfilled life? I really enjoyed this novel for which I got a digital ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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A sad and heartbreaking story that is also beautiful because the characters are beautiful souls that have to face the hate and prejudice of those unable to see past their exterior.

It's the story of two real-life conjoined twins, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, born in 12th century England, in the town of Biddenden in Kent to a wealthy farmer who could afford to keep them cared for in an abbey for their first half a dozen years of their life. When the girls, joined at the hip by birth, have to be taken from the abbey to live with their father, trouble ensues. First, it's their two-faced stepmother not having their best interest at heart as she pretends, and then it's the townspeople, who, urged on by the town priest, are initially hostile and superstitiously believe the girls are either a punishment from God or a product of the Devil. It takes a while, and lots of work and coordination between the few people able to see Mary and Eliza for what they are, just two unfortunate children not responsible for their condition instead of demonic work, for the girls to get accepted and thrive.

And thrive they do! Both girls show the world to be in possession of talents unique to them: Mary in healing and Eliza in music and poetry. The conjoined twins are so different from each other you can feel their desperation to be cleaved and be separate, but also can feel the deep love and loyalty they hold for each other. Mary, bookish and shy, and Eliza, brash and outgoing, have to learn to live supporting what the other does and wants, even if that means sacrificing their own desires. But they find contentment and earn the love and respect of those who know them, from nobles to peasants, even if there's always the occasional rude person taking it out on them.

Mary and Eliza are also the women who, on inheriting their father's wealth on his passing as his only children, set up the oldest charity in England, which the author says is still active nowadays, nine centuries later. This part was very remarkable.

What I loved the most is the progression in Mary and Eliza's character from childhood to the end of their days. When we meet them, they're six years old, and their POV shows it: both girls "speak" like children of that age in their early chapters; and then, as they become adults, their voice also changes so their respective latter chapters are different in tone. Interspersed in-between are universal narrator-style chapters that tell it from the standpoint of Sister Agnes, the nun who's been in charge of the Maids since birth, and the girls' father as well as some flashes by their stepmother Gudrun, so you get to see it from all angles. I usually don't like POVs that aren't consistently of one style, but I think it worked here, and I loved the girls' chapters best.

This is the kind of disability representation I like: accurate, non-preachy, non-agenda-pushing. Just tell how it's like to have a deformity or a disability, the hard parts and the challenging parts, showing how people are ableist and compassionate, loving or hostile, the blatant discrimination and the subtle ones. It was saddening to see how Mary and Eliza were treated, which makes you realise just how unfathomably hard it was for people with deformities and birth defects and disabilities in the past, when there was no state healthcare, no programmes to assist them, superstititon and wrong ideas circulated freely, etc. Mary and Eliza were fortunate that they had a rich father who was also a honest man and didn't have them disposed of or let them rot someplace like many would have, but imagine how many other children without the Chulkhurst girls' means perished and you feel grateful for the things we can enjoy today, even if not perfect.

It's so worth reading! I loved the story so much I didn't notice anything to criticise, it's been one of those rare books where the enjoyment of the story overwhelms any complaints I might have.

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I have only ever read one other book about conjoined twins that I gave 5 stars too, and this was better so 5 stars doesn't seem quite enough. Incredible writing, fantastically gripping storyline and well developed characters that really popped off of the page. I loved it,

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To say that The Maids of Biddenden was a great story does not express the depth of feeling I have for this book. The true story of Eliza and Mary, a set a conjoined twins who lived in 12th century England, is charming, riveting, full of heartache and joy. This fictional biography follows them from the time of their birth and upbringing in Malling Abbey throughout their life and many adventures with their parents Thomas and Gudrun Chulkhurst. Though there is no evidence that many of the events in this book transpired, it is a lovely tale of triumph over adversity and working together that I think everyone who is into historical fiction ought to read. I give this book 4 stars.

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An interesting look at the attitudes of the time towards the two girls who were conjoined.
Also, how the girls were brought up, and how they felt about the way they were treated.
Following them on through their lives, where they shone as separate characters.
A story I knew nothing about, that's made me a bit more historically knowledgeable.

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Inspired by the real life story of a conjoined twin, this historical fiction is wonderfully poignant mad dives quite deep taking its reader with it. I'll re-read this book again!

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Two young girls sat cross-legged side-by-side each playing with a small rag doll. "As they moved their arms to play with the dolls, each anticipated the other's actions, an unconscious dance performed between them." These two young girls, born in the village of Biddenden in Kent in the summer of 1100, were twins conjoined at the hip.

Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst spent the first six years of their lives at Malling Abbey hidden from view, their upkeep funded by Thomas Chulkhurst, widower and wealthy farmer. It was thought that "they are made comfortable in their confinement...their corporeal selves are hale and hearty...they are of sound mind...minds wholly separate...Mary is quiet, lets Eliza do the talking." Daily, Sister Agnes took them for a walk the length of the abbey walls. Most impressive was Agnes's garden of healing herbs and plants used to remedy the abbey's medical ills. She was "their sole advocate amongst the obedientiaries."

According to Bishop Gundulf, the abbey's coffers were being stretched to the limit by the presence of the now six year olds. Merchants had been forbidden from visiting, thereby hampering commerce. The school to educate oblates and novices had closed, lest the pupils hear "the maids". Would the payment for the maids be discontinued since Thomas Chulkhurst's second marriage? The decision made would ultimately change the trajectory of Eliza and Mary's young lives.

With Bishop Gundulf's protectorate in hand, a hired oxcart drove Eliza and Mary to the Chulkhurst longhouse, Eliza and Mary hidden within, Sister Agnes and Stepmother Gudrun walking alongside. "Gudrun is neither mother nor kin to the maids." Her goals were nefarious. The next hotly contested hurdle was the meeting of the Hundred Court, where the village elders must determine whether the maids could move freely within the environs of Biddenden. "Are we now to shun those whose appearance displeases us?...Appraise others by their character, not the fineness of their features."

Many opportunities were denied to Eliza and Mary, however, unimaginable doors opened. Gifted with a lyre, later a vielle, Eliza became a well respected musician and writer of songs/poems. Mary became a skilled healer building upon observations made at the knee of Sister Agnes in her medicinal plant garden. Upon the deaths of Eliza and Mary, their joint will stipulated that rent collected from their lands, called "The Bread and Cheese Lands" would be used by the church wardens to minister to the elderly and poor. Donations are collected each Easter. This tradition, started nine hundred years ago, still continues.....

"The Maids of Biddenden" by GD Harper is a historical fiction read not to be missed! "When we eat our bread and onion, Eliza gulps always eating faster than Mary, when Eliza is full, Mary says she is too, even if she had only had a few mouthfuls..." "How many children are attached to each other?...That is why everyone cries when they meet us..." "Can two young maids really strike such fear in the heart of stout people?" Not if strong-willed individuals champion the acceptance of those of us who are physically or mentally challenged.

Thank you Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Maids of Biddenden is inspired by the real-life story of conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, born in 1100 into a wealthy family from a small Kent village. I was immediately hooked. A fast paced, effortlessly quick read where the pages just turned themselves and I was engaged throughout.

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Thank you to the publisher for providing an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Maids of Biddenden is a delightfully human piece of historical fiction, set in a rarely explored era = the middle Middle Ages. Well written and researched (to the point of slightly feeling like like there's a few peripheral characters included just because they existed in real life) this was a really interesting read, told in a compelling way. I loved that the focus wasn't just on how the main characters were perceived by the world, but how they themselves perceived themselves and others. Resilience, tenacity and sensitive to the lived experiences of those with disabilities, I would happily read more historical fiction from GD Harper in the future.

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The Maids of Biddenden is a beautiful tale, and in many ways shows how society when educated can get over its preconceived notions and become more tolerant.

The Maids is the story of sisters that were conjoint twins. After they were born, they were given to a nunnery as their mother died in childbirth. Despite living under somewhat harsh conditions, the girls manage to thrive and are given back to their father and new wife as the nunnery was not able to care for them long term.

I do not want to give the story away, as the book unfolds with a heartful tale about how these girls managed to have a rich engaging life, despite their physical restrictions. The story is inspiring, overcoming obstacles, ignorance, and perceived ideas, and yet these two girls inspired so many. Based on a true story, the Maids of Biddenden were truly remarkable.

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The Maids of Biddenden is that rare beast which entirely absorbs the reader from page one. Helped by a flowing style of writing, and the immediate and impending danger that the twins find themselves in as six-year-olds, the reader is entirely absorbed in the story, and their fate, so much so that it's difficult to put the book down. That said, it is not just the twins themselves that drive the story - the people they interact with, those with their best and worst interests at heart - are all believable and well written, and there are occasions when the reader will be left frustrated and angered that some seem to face little punishment for their actions. The story has a number of points of view, and I found that they all worked very well - offering a view of the twins as they think of themselves, and also as others perceived them.

The story is effectively split in two; the first 45% tells the story of the Maids as young children. This element of the story is filled with a deep sense of foreboding that drives the story onward and makes the reader fearful for the future of the Maids. The narrative then moves forward a few years, and we see them as young women, trying to make a name for themselves and use their talents for good. At this point, the immediate landscape that the Maids encounter broadens considerably, and we move away from the nunnery and the settlement of Biddenden, into the politics and events of the early twelfth century, that almost consume the lives of the Maids for the remainder of their years - they lived during the time of the tragedy of the White Ship.

The story doesn't so much lose focus here, but because the impending danger has passed, the reader is instead absorbed in how the twins accomplish all that they do. There is a great deal of attention to detail here - both medical knowledge and music - and it's fascinating to see how the Maids' lives interact with known events from the period.

This is a delightful story. I was entirely engrossed and found myself snatching what time I could to carry on reading it - something that doesn't happen all that often. I highly, highly recommend The Maids of Biddenden for fans of historical fiction, and also for those who don't normally read the genre. The challenges that the twins face are well told, and the reaction their appearance sparks are conveyed well, although as the reader you will be offended by the prevailing belief that they are Godless and a monstrosity, and the fact that they were a 'sight to see' as opposed to always being appreciated for who they were and what they could accomplish. The historical notes at the back of the novel are also fascinating.

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