Book Review: The Maids Of Biddenden By G D Harper

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Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst were conjoined twins living in the Kent village of Biddenden at the beginning of the 12th century. Starting with their removal to a convent to await their (presumed) early death, The Maids of Biddenden follows the ups and downs of their lives, ambitions and struggle for acceptance. We watch Eliza trying to nurture her musical talent and Mary working to heal the sick and to establish her physic garden. All the while they are held back by medieval constraints on gender, the social hierarchy, and their physical dependence upon one another.

Book cover with text "The Maids of Biddenden G D Harper". Cover is brown with images of plants and a lyre

Little is known about the real Eliza and Mary. Even their existence has been disputed, although circumstantial evidence (including a bequest to the village in the 12th century) is persuasive. The author has put flesh on the bones of their legend, presenting us with a picture of two very different but determined and spirited women, and the struggles they would have encountered.

We witness their horror as they grasp the reality of their situation, their wretchedness that nothing can change, and their gradual acceptance of their fate. This journey is mirrored by those around them: to outsiders they eventually become a curiosity rather than a curse.

From a modern perspective the attitudes of some who rejected, mocked, or even sought secretly to dispose of, the twins may seem shocking. However, we have to see the story in the context of the Middle Ages. Life was precarious – even for the wealthy – and any sort of disability was a threat to survival. Furthermore, belief in the devil and his works was real, and  physical differences were to be viewed with suspicion. It is a tribute to human kindness that – for the most part – they were eventually accepted.

I found myself drawn in to Mary and Eliza’s story, and cheering them on as they battled against the odds. It has to be said that, as they would have been genetically identical I wonder whether their abilities and personalities would have been so very different from one another. I also question whether their lives could have been quite as successful as this novel suggests. However, this is fiction, and a certain amount of literary licence is allowable. An enjoyable read.

The Maids of Biddenden, G D Harper, Ginger Cat, 2022, 9780993547874

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