Discovering The Maids of Biddenden with GD Harper

I think just about every author interview I see or hear asks the author where they get their ideas from. However, I make no excuses today for asking GD Harper to introduce the catalysts for his book The Maids of Biddenden – conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst in a super guest post that I’m delighted to share with you today.

Published by Ginger Cat, The Maids of Biddenden is available for purchase here.

The Maids of Biddenden

‘There is no me; there is no you.
There is only us.’

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, 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.

Introducing The Maids of Biddenden

A Guest Post by GD Harper

Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst were 12th-century conjoined twins born to a wealthy family from the village of Biddenden in Kent. The two women lived to be 34 and left their land to charity when they died. An annual dole from the proceeds of their estate, the ‘Bread and Cheese Lands’, is still paid out to the poor and elderly every Easter, and is thought to be the oldest charity dole in England, still taking place almost 900 years later. Biddenden cakes are made using a mould showing two women joined together and sold on the day as souvenirs. They are brick-hard and store well, but are almost inedible.

The first mention of the dole was in 1605, when the Archdeacon of Canterbury, after visiting the Biddenden parish at Easter, wrote to his superiors to complain about the unruly mob that crowded the church, eagerly awaiting the distribution of bread, cheese, cakes and beer. A court case in 1645 contained depositions from witnesses saying these lands had originally been donated by ‘two Maidens that grew together in their bodies’, showing the story was well known in the seventeenth century. The cakes in the form of an effigy of the Maids were first mentioned in 1775; in 1808, the first broadsheet on the Chulkhurst twins was printed and sold outside the church at Easter for two pence. One of these broadsheets survived and is in the Wellcome Museum in London.

The first photographs of the customs associated with the Maids was taken by Sir Benjamin Stone in 1906, showing the widows of the parish queuing at the window of the Old Workhouse, along with a photo of the cakes. When I attended the Easter dole this year, it was a poignant moment to stand on the same spot that Sir Benjamin photographed over a century before.

I thought the story of these two remarkable women deserves to reach the widest possible audience. Little factual information is known about Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, so I have taken the real-life historical events and characters of the time and used them to write The Maids of Biddenden, a hopefully credible, entertaining and inspirational story about their life. It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to live a life as a conjoined twin, so I researched all the fiction, non-fiction and medical books on the subject I could find, to try to understand what the physical and psychological implications are of being joined to another person. The end result is a book which not only describes a historical adventure, but also has two very unique lead characters

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The Maids of Biddenden sounds utterly fascinating. Thanks so much for introducing them to us today.

About GD Harper

GD Harper became a full-time author in 2016. His three previous novels are Love’s Long Road, A Friend in Deed and Silent Money. He was a Wishing Shelf Book Award finalist and Wishing Shelf Red Ribbon winner, shortlisted for the Lightship Prize, longlisted for the UK Novel Writing Award and longlisted for the Page Turner Writer Award. His latest book, The Maids of Biddenden, was a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Book Award for unpublished manuscripts, longlisted for the 2021 Exeter Novel Prize and the 2021 Flash 500 Novel Award, and shortlisted for the 2021 Impress Prize.

You can find out more about GD Harper by visiting his website, following him on Twitter @harper_author or finding him on Facebook.

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