My holiday book this year was the fascinating novel “The Maids Of Biddenden” by G D Harper. It is really an ”imagined biography” – a novel based on the legendary story of Mary and Eliza Chaulkhurst, the 12th century conjoined twins who hailed from Biddenden, Kent. A really heart warming and inspirational story of two women, with two distinctly different personalities and two different careers but sharing the one body. Although it is an imagined biography, the storyline isn’t far fetched and I was drawn into the world of the twins from the start. I loved the fact that although they were one body they were definitely two distinct people in their own right. I could easily imagine how frightened people were when they first encountered the twins, and how innocent the twins were, thinking that everybody starts life conjoined. This novel piqued my interest in finding out more about the twins, I cried at the cruelty, I laughed at the antics and petty quarrels between the girls and my heart melted when they encountered people who treated them with kindness. This book is the first in a new historical fiction trilogy highlighting little known stories from Kent and Sussex, by author GD Harper ( although , he has written 3 brilliant psychological thrillers – Love’s Long Road, A Friend In Deed and Silent Money). I couldn’t wait to chat to Glyn to find out more about the Maids of Biddenden … Hi Glyn! Please introduce yourself 😊
Hello! I went to Glasgow University in 1975 and lived in the city’s West End, the time and place for the setting of the majority of my first two novels, Love’s Long Road and Silent Money.
I also worked in Russia and Ukraine for ten years, which gave me ideas for the plot and setting that I used in my third novel, “A Friend in Deed”. Although somewhat overtaken by recent events, I think it still remains an entertaining read.
I now live in East Sussex, not far from Biddenden in Kent, which is the setting for my latest novel, The Maids of Biddenden, the imagined biography of Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, conjoined twins born in 1100 into a wealthy family from the small Kent village of Biddenden. When they died they left their money to charity, which almost 900 years later still gives donations to the elderly of the village every Easter Monday, making it one of oldest continuous charity doles in England. Visitors to the village when the dole is handed out can buy Biddenden cakes, shaped in the image of the Maids. They are rock-hard and inedible, but store well and are kept as souvenirs.
I became a full-time author in 2016. My writing was placed third in the Lightship Prize for first-time authors and has won a 2016 Wishing Shelf Award Red Ribbon, longlisted for the 2017 UK Novel Writing Competition, the Wishing Shelf 2018 awards, the 2020 Page Turner Writer Award, the 2021 Flash 500 Award, the 2021 Impress Prize and the 2021 Exeter Novel Prize. The Maids of Biddenden was number one in Medieval History on amazon.com in the month it was launched.
Who or what inspired you to research and write about The Maids of Biddenden?
When you arrive in Biddenden, you are greeted by a village sign of the two women side-by-side and the same image is seen throughout the village. It is an astonishing story, and one that I always tell when I’m showing visitors around this beautiful part of Kent. But when I am asked specific questions about them, I realise how little factual information is known about Eliza and Mary. For a novelist, this is actually good news as I realised I had a largely blank canvas to describe a possible life for them.
That was the inspiration for me writing, The Maids of Biddenden. I used the real-life historical events and characters of the time to give a factual backcloth to the story and carefully researched what was known about rural life in Kent at that time and the places where the book is set; Malling, Maidstone, Tenterden, Ashford, Canterbury and, of course, Biddenden itself.
I really enjoyed reading your book, “The Maids of Biddenden”. Although the novel is based on legendary story of the 12th century conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst and is essentially an imagined biography, I loved the portrayal of the twins and could imagine the reactions from people that met them. I loved that the twins had distinctly different personalities and I did giggle a bit when Eliza had a love interest! My heart melted when they were given a looking glass and I was so upset when Mary became ill. They were definitely my favourite characters in the novel but I also had a soft spot for Sister Agnes, Gerbert and Gaston. Which characters were challenging to write about?
I think Gudrun, the Maids’ stepmother was the most challenging. The twins spend their early years hidden away and being cared for by nuns, so she doesn’t meet them until they are six years old and is horrified both by the sight of them and the fact that she believes the family will be shunned if they return with them to Biddenden and so plots to stop that from happening. But over the course of the book she begins to accept and then admire them, and by the end she holds them in even higher esteem than the villagers do themselves. It was important to me to make this significant character as credible and believable as I think it has a message about how attitudes to disability are changing in today’s society as well.
Did you have any favourite characters?
Eliza and Mary are of course my favourites, but I enjoyed the challenge of bringing some of the minor characters to life – the outspoken alewife, Ada; the warring nobles William de Ashford and Robert de Crevecoeur, Deorwin the wise and compassionate village reeve, etc
Having already written 3 very popular psychological thrillers – Love’s Long Road; A Friend In Deed & Silent Money – “ The Maids Of Biddenden” is obviously a different genre (although written just as well!) Were there any aspects of writing “The Maids Of Biddenden “ that surprised you, pleasantly or otherwise, compared with writing psychological thrillers?
I was worried about how to give my author voice a historical feel without resorting to pastiche. And you can’t write in the actual language of the time as it would be incomprehensible, but you also need to make sure you don’t sound overly contemporary and avoid anachronisms. Hopefully, I’ve got the balance right, and if anything, I always veered more towards making the story easy to read rather than overly flowery and obtuse.
Growing up, have you always wanted to be an author or did you have other career aspirations?
I had a first career in marketing, but I always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties, as I think it took me until then to feel I had enough of an informed view of life to write words people would want to read.
“The Maids Of Biddenden” is the first book of a planned trilogy of historical fiction highlighting little known stories from Kent and Sussex. Can you tell us a bit about the other books?
It is the first part of a trilogy bringing to life obscure historical events and characters from Kent and Sussex. The outline of the second book is already defined and I’m currently working on a first draft.
Are you a bookworm? What is your favourite genre and/or authors? Kindle or actual book?
Not as much as I’d like to be. I like reading authors who are easy to read, but have a great quality of prose that is both lyrical and evocative. I’m reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist at the moment, Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdad’s Sing before that. I also love the imagery in Ian McEwan’s books.
And being a bit of a technophobe, I always read paperbacks.
Is “The Maids Of Biddenden” available to purchase worldwide?
Yes it is, in both paperback and e-book. I was number 16 in overall sales on Amazon in Australia at the beginning of September, number two in historical fiction behind the new Maggie O’Farrell novel. Having said I’m a technophobe, I’m amazed at how easy it is these days to market and sell books all over the world.
If you could visit any place in the world to give you inspiration for your next book, where would you go and why?
I’m working with facsimiles and transcriptions of 16th-century documents at the moment, the sourcematerial for my next novel. I’d love to visit the British Library and the Bodleian Library and see the actual documents for myself and see what additional insights they reveal.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
When you get to a certain age, you have to up your game when it comes to clothes if you want to look smart, you can’t get away with cheap stuff anymore. Tailored suit with t shirt and leather sneakers if I’m going out, something non-slobby if I’m nipping down to the shops.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
I like to buy my clothes in the independent shops in Brighton’s Lanes and go down and do a blitz shopthere once a year. Ted Baker and Paul Smith are the chains I like and so I pop into their shops in Covent Garden when I’m in London. I never buy clothes online.
What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?
A new Arc’teryx waterproof jacket for wearing in the Scottish mountains. My current one is coming to the end of its useful life.
Boots or Shoes?
I’ll say boots, as I love climbing and trekking. But if you mean for casualwear, I’ll have to choose shoes. I like boots, but they don’t like me. Always giving me blisters.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc
Thank you Glyn for agreeing to be interviewed; and thank you to Ben Cameron of Cameron Publicity & Marketing (and Glyn) for sending me a copy of ”The Maids Of Biddenden” for reviewing. My thoughts about the book are 100% mine! 😊
All photographs have been published with the kind permission of G D Harper and copyright information on certain photos has been added.