As soon as I saw this book on social media I was intrigued. Like many people, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between twins – blame Sweet Valley High – but co-joined twins take this unique connection to a different level. My curiosity piqued when I discovered this was also based on a true story.
Scroll down to see my thoughts on this unusual book.
Book Review: The Maids of Biddenden Hall by GD Harper
Title: The Maids of Biddenden Hall
Author: GD Harper
Publisher: Ginger Cat
Genre: Historical fiction
Release Date: 16th June 2022
‘There is no I, there is no you. There is only us.’
Joined at the hip, Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst 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 that survives to this day. This is the heart-warming inspirational story of two remarkable women leading one joint life, challenging adversity to become the best they can be.
From the start, I was thrown into the life and thoughts of the time as I was introduced to the girls as young children. As a disabled person, I found the beginning chapters hard to read, as anything unusual was classed as evil and life was expendable. Throughout the novel, it highlighted the hate, suspicion and bigotry that plagued the girls but also showed love, acceptance and their ability to flourish in their community and beyond.
As someone who has little knowledge of the era, the politics and social norms outside their farm was as mind-boggling to me as them at the beginning, but they used their intelligence and determination to make their mark as something more than a curious exhibit. It was refreshing to read. They were distinct individuals with Eliza being an accomplished musician and Mary, a healer. The detailed descriptions of the daily life made it easy to slip into their world especially Mary’s physica gardens. I knew nothing about them but could see Mary’s ambition reflected in community gardening projects nowadays.
This is a well written, unforgettable and uplifting story of two formidable women whose legacy lives on.
Would I recommend?
Yes, the twin’s lives drew me into the 12th century to discover a political and social landscape I knew nothing about. This fascinating novel followed two unique women as they made a place in a world beyond anyone’s expectations against a backdrop of stigma and patriarchy. Their story is as relevant now as it was then. It’s an ideal read for fans of historical fiction and stories based on little known personalities from the past.
GD Harper became a full-time author in 2016, publishing three novels under the pen name GD Harper. I have been both a Wishing Shelf Book Award finalist and Red Ribbon winner, been shortlisted for the Lightship Prize, longlisted for the UK Novel Writing Award and longlisted for the Page Turner Writer Award. The Maids of Biddenden was a finalist in this year’s Page Turner Book Award for unpublished manuscripts, longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize and the Flash 500 Novel Award, and shortlisted for the Impress Prize.
Hello November, one of my favourite times of year, not only because of the lingering high from Halloween and hurtling towards the festive feel of Christmas but it’s time for NaNoWriMo. The atmosphere of the writing community rises and there is always an explosion of support to keep people writing so it’s always hard not to get involved. Despite my success in 2018, the full challenge is out of my reach like many spoonie writers. The pressure of 1666 words a day is crippling and even with naps, it triggers flares and guilt. So I belong to the NaNoWriMo tribe of rebels and we all have our own ways of rebelling. I thought I’d share some things that have helped me.
My tipsto being a NaNoWriMo rebel
1. The key thing of rebelling is to make up your own target. I’ve chosen 15,000 words but know it maybe too ambitious – I’ve already lost days to migraines and exhaustion but if I manage it, my first rough draft about my ballet quartet will be finished and that will be the ultimate achievement. Can I eek my manuscript of 66,660 words out to stumble over the 75,000 mark? Watch this space!
The fantastic author and co-founder of the Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illness (ACCI) group Claire Wade has developed one of the best rebel goals for author’s with limited energy, chronic illness or disability – the #PostItNaNo challenge. Aiming to write at least a Post-it note a day can be a huge step in the development of a story or character, and the dopamine rush of making progress without the pressure of hundred’s of words is a good inspiration for the next day.
2. Find your tribe, if you have fellow writers to connect with it and share ideas, good news and disappointments it makes the writing process easier and more fun
3. Join in with the community on social media or the NaNoWriMo site. The podcasts, zooms and general chitchat inspires more writing and determination to keep going.
4. Find someone to do sprints with. Writing sprints whether they last thirty minutes or an hour have become my friend. I’m lucky to have friends in the RNA to join forces with, but I have also discovered The Writer’s Hour which follows Neil Gaiman’s idea of ‘do nothing or write’. You can hop on to zoom at predetermined times during the day for an hour of writing and accountability. It’s a friendly group and best of all, they start with a writing related quote to give you a kick in the right direction. Click here for more information. Maybe I’ll see you there.
5. Rewards for achieving small goals even a sticker or favourite hot chocolate are a great motivator. Books as rewards are even better.
5. Don’t fall into the guilt trap. It zaps creativity. Even a couple of words a day is a step closer to your goal. I find this hard to do because guilt and imposter syndrome seem to be my default thoughts when faced with an empty page or rough rough draft of a scene.
6. Just enjoy the writing progress and remember why you’re doing it. Writing isn’t just about word count. It involves so much more – thinking time to grasp the idea you want to focus on and let it brew while doing other things (okay this could be classed as procrastination but if the story and characters are strong enough the mind will be working in the background without you realising it) and plotting on post its, and research. Everything counts. And the variety of actions helps keep the spark and fun alive.
7. If it all grinds to a halt and target isn’t achieved, take what you have done and celebrate. It’s progress and still deserve a treat.
However you’re doing NaNoWriMo good luck, keep going and happy writing.
Like many I was glued to the Paralympics in the last couple of weeks especially the swimming as I followed fellow dystonian, Tully Kearney. What an achievement to get a silver and gold! Channel 4 did a wonderful job at presenting the Paralympic games and it was great to see disabled people in the limelight on mainstream television which was not limited to just those competing which had happened in years previously. I only hope the representation of disabled people continues and not downgraded until the next games. Representation matters. It gives people, who are normally forced into the shadows, a voice, shows them they are not alone and what can be done if given the opportunity but also shows that we are like everyone else with our own stories. Representation is also important in publishing and books. I’m excited to pass over my blog to A.G Parker, author of Twisted Roots, to discuss this further.
Guest Post: Cured or Dead by A.G Parker
“If in the first act you see a disabled person, by the end they must be cured or dead.”*
Don’t look at me, that’s what Chekov said.
Ok, he didn’t, but that’s my version of Chekov’s gun, and after eighteen months leaning on escapism – oftentimes being at the mercy of whatever’s on, in stock or wedged in the shelves – I can tell you it sadly rings too true. From romance to science fiction, fantasy to crime, disabled people are rarely anything but plot devices to make an able-bodied protagonist look good/bad/kind/sadistic. Disabled characters aren’t given the nuance or the opportunity to represent the disabled community authentically. Heck, we’re not even given agency or a personality half the time.
And the fact is, we can see all too clearly just by looking at our pandemic statistics how art and popular culture influence life and vice versa. In the UK, 60% of deaths in this pandemic were disabled people†. The mechanism by which this was allowed, even pushed for, goes thus: Society is sold a story, saturated with multiple stories, actually, which depict disabled people as, as a certain government phrased it, eaters – a drain on the precious economy, offering little in the way of contribution. The public, already operating under fear because pandemic, follow the brutal logic that herd immunity and prioritising the economy over disabled lives is the right course of action. Because, despite ¼ of us being disabled, most people absorb the stories they’d fed rather than rely on evidence. Even if they don’t consciously believe it, information shared this way goes in. It’s one of the most vital and effective ways of sharing knowledge. But at the moment stories, along with politicians, aren’t doing us any favours. Internalised ableism – as a result of media, politics, literature, society’s perception of us – was one of the main issues I had with being disabled. Because aren’t we all wheelchair-bound, benefit cheats and scammers? Isn’t our disability as a result of sin? Either that or we’re inspirational.
Ableist storytelling is nothing new. It’s a ripple from decades past which has gathered strength – political manifestos and the media and literature ricocheting off each other – until finally, at the peak of the crescendo, the wave breaks and we’re left with 80,000 (disabled people) dead to a virus, and no-one is even asking for the government to be held accountable.
So how do we change that? How do we stop disabled people, too, believing the narrative that we are ‘less than’, others. How do we eradicate the deadly ableism?
We have to be represented.
Simply put, we have to change the narrative perpetuated by media, politicians, economists, and fearmongers. We have to push for representation which authentically shows the disabled community as it is. We need protagonists and side-kicks, background characters and entire casts who are disabled.
(We don’t need more disabled villains.)
We need disabled characters whose raison d’être is disability-focused, and we need others whose disability is incidental. And we need to imagine futures where there is equality for disabled people. That mainstream speculative fiction and fantasy haven’t achieved this yet makes me incandescent with rage. You’re literally writing about made up things; if you’ve got a talking dragon or a hat that can see into your soul and choose which school house you belong to, you can damn well envisage a disabled person being a hero. We do not deserve to be side-lined or sideshows.
I won’t list the abundance of ableist nonsense I’ve read, watched or heard in the past two years, but I will say, I read a SFF book about a deadly pandemic where NO DISABLED PEOPLE SURVIVED, but suddenly, fairies appeared. Another book where the MC sampled multiple versions of their life and in none of them were they physically disabled. You can guess how that affected my mental health.
I’ve also read S. L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game, which has a badass disabled character who doesn’t die and even, how dare he, remains steadfastly disabled and badass until the end. No cure or desire for one in sight.
I read apocalyptic fiction where a bunch of disabled people banded together and lived.
I watched Ryan O’Connell’s Special and loved it.
I read Stephen Lightbown’s The Last Custodian. (And cried.)
I watched disabled burlesque performers.
Saw a disabled stand-up act.
Read books with protagonists working through mental health crises.
Attended an exhibition about eugenics put together by disability activists.
Connected with other disabled writers and talked about disability representation in literature and other media, and listened to poetry written by other people in our community. There’s work out there. We just need more of it.
Luckily, somewhere along the course of this pandemic, I remembered I’m a writer. So, in the last year or so, I’ve written and performed spoken word about disability, queerness and politics. I’m 40,000 words into a SFF where two of the main characters are disabled. I’ve written essays and articles and been interviewed by the FT about disability. In short, I’m being LOUD. Because that’s what our community deserves – more authentic voices telling our own stories, reminding the non-/not yet-disabled people that we are just like them. Deserving of life, and all the wonders of creation.‡
A. G. Parker is a London-based writer, editor, and Best of the Net nominated poet. Their debut dark fantasy novel, Twisted Roots is now available to buy, and their poetry, fiction, and essays have been featured in various publications, including Mslexia, The F-Word, Elevator Stories, The Feminist Library, Prismatica, Ogma, Sufi Journal, Sage Cigarettes, Earth Pathways, and more. Their craft essay about disability representation in fiction features in Human/Kind Press‘ anthology Musing the Margins. They are the English Language Editor for Angeprangert! and a staff reader at Prismatica Magazine. They run mindful writing workshops that encourage people to explore and develop a connection with Self through creativity; Sacred Anarchy will run from September 2021. As a pansexual, genderqueer and disabled writer, they hope their work offers readers an inclusive perspective. Will read your tarot for a price.
It is International Day of People With a Disability and #PitMad on Twitter. This could make a powerful combination at getting authors with disabilities and chronic health conditions seen and our stories told. There are 14.1 million adults* in the UK with a disability, yet they are rarely seen in fiction and romance. When they are they are often in what can be described as ‘inspiration porn.’ There is a drive to change this as well as make writing and publishing more inclusive to the disabled community and underrepresented groups. Hopefully this will provide an influx of novels showing relatable characters representing all.
Last month, the Romantic Novelist’s Association took an important step in inclusivity by the introduction of the RNA Disco Chapter. This is an online chapter for RNA members with disabilities, chronic health conditions and neurodiversity to offer support, a safe place to chat about the obstacles we face and friendship. I was excited and nervous to take part in the #UKRomChat last week on Twitter to discuss the chapter and its importance. The chat can be began here.
I have been lucky to receive a bursary for the New Writer’s Scheme, which has given me more opportunities and friendships that I could dream of. Without it I would not have a full manuscript of A Blend of Magic on my PC and out for submission, and I would not have found my tribe. Hopefully, this chapter will spread awareness of the scheme and offer others the chance.
Two founding members Jeanna Louise Skinner and Denise also discuss the chapter, underrepresented writers and how NWS has affected their lives here.