The Maids of Biddenden by GD Harper – a remarkable tale of two girls in the early twelfth century

The Maids of Biddenden by GD Harper

This is an impressive and deeply felt historical novel about the potential story of two girls, born conjoined twins, who had very different personalities, abilities and desires. It tells the story of two girls, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, born in 1100. In a time of general religious belief, marred by superstition and politics, such a phenomenon demanded attention, fear and even evil intentions. Conjoined twins are vulnerable in the twenty first century; in the 1100s their survival into adulthood was miraculous. This book’s great achievements are their fascinating personalities as they are given chance to speak their thoughts and the sense of the times in which they lived. Their birth family is wealthy and respectable, yet their house is basic despite their rank. Not everyone is sympathetic to the girls, battles must be faced from their earliest days, and yet they achieve fame in their chosen fields.

This is a book with an amazing atmosphere of reality, as daily life in various settings is described, complete as to the basics of illness, the language spoken and the life lived by various people, from an alewife through to a bishop. This is a world in which people scraped by despite many challenges of illness, extreme poverty and the dangers of religious fervour, and the lives lived by women were circumscribed, let alone when they were incredible rarities. The author has managed to convey so much about life in the twelfth century, including the influence of the church and the way local life was organised. It is a complex, moving and intense novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

As the book opens the girls are small children, living in a convent and secluded from most of the nuns, let alone the world. Evidently, they were born to the first wife of Thomas Chulkhurst, Juliana, who died immediately. The secret of the twins joined at the hip was kept by their swift removal to the convent, and the stipend paid by their father for their care. They had been left to the daily care of two nuns, one who was cruel, and Sister Agnes, who came to love the two girls. Deprived of contact with the outside world and education beyond a locked room, they nevertheless evolve an understanding of their situation. As they express in chapters in which they narrate in their childish way, they are very different personalities who have means of communication and understanding of their sister which is unique. They believe that there will come a time when they are split; that indeed all children are joined until parted at a certain time. Meanwhile the nuns and others who are aware of their existence debate as to whether they should be allowed to die or survive. There is a perception that they represent a demonic presence by some, and their very appearance is often upsetting to some. Fortunately, a strong minded senior nun takes over responsibility for their wellbeing, and she argues that they need to be cherished rather than shut away or worse. As it becomes obvious that changes must be made to their care and upbringing, vested interests and ambitions collide with simple compassion and their lives depend on the vagaries of human opinions.

This book is an admirable achievement for its clever conveying of what each girl thinks, feels and has to offer. It is a memorable novel of historical research and the conviction that life was not tidy, near and clean like some historical recreation, and that there were people who were genuinely disturbed by what they saw as a terrible thing rather than two vibrant and intelligent women. It offers a real insight into human nature not confined to the 1100s, and a sense of the lives of these two women. It is a remarkable book, and I recommend it as a memorable read.