Photos: Ship (Print Collector/Getty); Compass (Riorita/Getty); Sarah Ferguson (Courtesy of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York)
Her Heart For A Compass
Sarah, Duchess of York, draws on her own life as a Royal and that of her great-great aunt to pen a historical romance set in the Victorian era / BY Leanne Delap / August 13th, 2021
The greatest appeal of the British Royal Family is the fairy-tale romance part. When the flame-haired, free-spirited Sarah Ferguson married her prince in 1986, her love story became part of the myth making. Although Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York, separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, the couple get on famously, and live in separate wings of Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. But Ferguson, who was stripped of her HRH title, has had to earn a living and continues to try her hand at an unusual array of new ventures. The latest is her first novel for adults, Her Heart for a Compass, a historical romance inspired by an ancestor.
While not exactly the bodice-ripper it was rumoured to be, this light and frothy tale weighs in at more than 500 pages. (There are three rather chaste smooches in the saga, but one is with a hot priest, so bonus points for evoking Fleabag.) Though the reviews have been mixed (“interminable doorstopper” was the verdict in London’s The Telegraph), the book has traction. Variety reported this week the Duchess is in talks with top streaming services to adapt the saga for film. After the success of Bridgerton, it seems there is an appetite for the fan-fluttering, heavy-breathing-in-corsets genre. Note that Ferguson was a producer on 2009 miniseries Young Victoria, so she has some experience in this area.
Ferguson is the rare celebrity who openly and fully shares credit with her co-author, Marguerite Kay, who has penned some 50 books for the venerable romance house Mills & Boon. In the business of heaving bosoms since 1908, Mills & Boon was celebrated as a national treasure in the Second World War when the few books it printed under rationing were shared throughout the land as a welcome distraction. The publishing house merged with Canada’s Harlequin romance books in the 1970s. Her Heart for a Compass was published Aug. 10 HarperCollins Canada.
Little is known about Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, Ferguson’s great-great aunt, who was born in Scotland in 1846. She was daughter of the fifth Duke of Buccleuch and his wife, Charlotte, and made her own ambitious marriage to Donald Cameron of Lochiel, the 24th Chief of the Clan Cameron; the couple were evidently chummy with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. After raising four sons, Lady Margaret died in 1918 at 71. Ferguson has been tinkering with the idea of building a character around her great-great aunt, who shared her bold, red hair, for the past 15 years. She explained her creative process to Tatler: “With real historical events and facts to hand, my imagination took over,” she said. “I invented a history for her that incorporated real people and events, including some of my other ancestors. I created a friendship between my heroine and Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s sixth child, and I drew on many parallels from my life for Lady Margaret’s journey.”
Indeed, the element of female friendship is stronger in the novel than the romance stuff, as shown through correspondence from the fictional Lady Margaret to her girlfriends at home in England and Ireland. It is set in the mid-1800s, but reimagined through a modern, feminist lens.
The novel’s protagonist is a firecracker. We meet her in 1865, moments before her parents are set to announce her engagement at a ball at midnight. Her mother arranged the marriage for political and dynastic and financial reasons. Lady Margaret admits her husband-to-be seems good on paper, but secretly suspects he does not admire her, and he certainly does not make her heart flutter. In fact, he has an annoying, strangled cough that makes her skin crawl. At 17, she doesn’t even know herself yet and yearns madly for freedom. That is a wishful-thinking kind of anachronism: the fact that freedom for women was not really possible in the mid-1800s, especially for a noblewoman, is not impediment to this story. But where there is a will, Lady M finds a way!
It is not spoiling the plot to say that Lady Margaret bolts from the announcement and is banished by her mortified family. In an unlikely but cinematic turn, she flees to Ireland, and lands, eventually, in New York. The authors toss trials and challenges and roadblocks at their intrepid protagonist, who establishes a career as a ladies periodical journalist and children’s book writer with a solid resume of hands-on charity work. Some 400 pages later, circa 1876, she does find her soulmate. Revealing more would be uncharitable to readers who make their way through the breathy pages.
The writing is commensurate with the genre. It carries you along, occasionally stopping you short with some ye-olde-time tropes and expressions. “I am your daughter and not your chattel!” is a classic. There are loads of interactions with dogs, which Lady M really likes, and there are, of course, horses. Here is an example of how many words it took in posh circles to say you went riding: “Though I have really no grounds for complaint, for I was permitted to try out one of Mr. Astor’s mares, and he deemed me competent enough to grant me the use of her every day, which was a real treat.”
The literary devices, such as Lady M’s letters, journalistic reports (sadly less arch and gossipy than Lady Whistledown in Bridgerton) and fleeting historical mentions help explain the grand politesse of the Victorian era. This is the book’s press account about Lady M’s arrival in America aboard the Scotia ship: “Readers who are imagining a faded, aged spinster peeress and her down-at-the-heel paid companion should prepare to have their expectations quite confounded. Lady Margaret is 21 years of age, flame haired and perfectly proportioned … with a charming and unaffected manner.”
Ferguson herself has always been the jolly and relatable royal. She is unabashedly herself, and the genteel, daredevil character of Lady M reflects the woman we have come to know. Ferguson has overcome many scandals – from the pictures that surfaced in 1992 of her lover sucking her toes on holiday in France that is mentioned in virtually every story about her, to the 2010 News of the World sting operation when she agreed to sell access to Prince Andrew for cash. She has tried many different career hats on, from shilling for Weight Watchers to Wedgewood China.
But books are not new territory for her. As her nephew Harry and his wife Meghan’s book deals start to pile up, they have Auntie Fergie’s example to follow in the publishing world. Ferguson, in a “Lunch With” column in the Financial Times to promote the novel, threw roses to Meghan, whose first children’s book, The Bench, has been panned by critics. “I really am proud of William and Harry and their wives,” she says. As for Meghan’s book, “For anyone to write anything like that is good.”
Dismiss Ferguson at your peril: her books to date have sold some 1.5 million copies. In addition to her 2012 memoir, Finding Sarah, there have been bestselling self-help books such as What I Know Now and Reinventing Yourself with the Duchess of York, plus dining and dieting books to round out her personal brand. Long before her grandchildren started arriving, she was writing children’s books: in addition to her Budgie the Little Helicopter series, there has been Arthur Fantastic, a Little Red series (about a red-haired girl) and a Genie Gems series.
You can’t accuse Ferguson of resting on her laurels, or sleeping on her deadlines. You also have to admire her tenacity as she survives the slings and arrows of the Royal Family. Prince Philip famously shunned her after the aforementioned toe-sucking incident. She has stood by Prince Andrew as the scandal around his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein grew and the Queen removed him from official duties. Fergie, who calls Prince Andrew “her rock,” has been a rock for her ex. Last week, when the book was launched, Virginia Giuffre filed a civil lawsuit in New York claiming she was a victim of sex trafficking and that the prince sexually assaulted her when she was 17 at the London home of Epstein’s friend, Ghislaine Maxwell, and at Epstein’s homes in New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
With Princess Beatrice expecting the couple’s second grandchild this fall, the real-life, flame-haired rebel is doing her best to keep calm and carry on.