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Sarah Ferguson’s first novel for adults is prefaced with an account of our author. “Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is a bestselling memoirist and children’s author, film producer, and has been a spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Wedgewood China… she works on historical documentaries and films that draw on her deep interest in Victorian history.” There’s bathos there, but more follows:
“She is daughter-in-law of HM The Queen and former wife of Prince Andrew, Duke of York. Grandmother to August and mother of two daughters… She lives in Windsor with five Norfolk terriers.” So there you have it; a human drama which beats all the fiction that follows, and a woman forever making the most of that designation, “daughter-in-law of HM The Queen”. Ex, I think.
The story was written in conjunction with Marguerite Kaye and dedicated to her daughters, “who have all the strength and courage of Lady Margaret. They too have followed their hearts …” Who she? Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott was the daughter of the fifth Duke of Buccleuch and his wife Charlotte, who were Fergie’s great, great, great grandparents; all we know about Lady M is that she was bridesmaid to one of Queen Victoria’s daughters and married, at the then ripe age of 29, a man you must read the book to identify.
But onto this shadowy lady there is projected a very fully-fleshed character indeed: flame-haired, freckled, impulsive, affectionate, besties with a princess, fond of chocolate cake (it actually wasn’t such a thing back in 1865), a dab hand at writing stories for children (Tall Tales and Wagging Tails!) – and reading them aloud! – and too naturally rebellious to marry an aristocrat who keeps calling her Lady Margaret, even when they’re engaged. Oh and she has weight issues.
Who can this be?
Let’s park that and follow our heroine from the first scene where she is bracing herself for the announcement of her engagement to Lord Rufus Ponsonby, the Earl of Killian, who never looks at her when he could be consulting a gold timepiece, but the announcement never comes because Lady Margaret has taken herself off in her simple white ballgown into the streets of London – I told you she was rebellious – to be returned home by a gentleman well-wisher. The Duke and Duchess are naturally furious and our heroine beats an early retreat from her first London season to the family estate, her fall from grace marked, like every step in her career, by a cruel diarist in the press.
Returning to London, resolved to marry the hated earl, she takes refuge in doing good works with a young idealistic clergyman in Lambeth and soon is telling stories to the Cockney children. She still can’t abide Lord Rufus and is banished to a friend of her mother’s in Ireland, Lady Julia, Viscountess Powerscourt, who, as it happens, was another of our author’s ancestors. Her father isn’t speaking to her again but has fortunately given her an allowance which enables her to turn down the proposal of the attractive gentleman who rescued her on her in chapter one, because her heart is not ready. She goes to America to find herself and an American readership, and there engages in further good works – more reading to poor tots - is a hit as a journalist and meets all the famous New Yorkers of the period – the Astors, Gordon Bennett etc.
But the compass that is her heart is pointing towards home, and she returns to Scotland. Nothing would persuade me to reveal if there is a happy ending; but I will only say that few of us would find a rejected eligible suitor still on the market seven years on.
It’s tosh, of course, but amiable tosh. Yet what’s baffling is that for someone who presumably knows her way around the aristocracy, our author sounds so very much like an outsider with her nose pressed against the glass, who doesn’t know how grandees actually talk but tries to make up for it by the lavish use of titles and refined diction; there’s a pinkie held aloft in every sentence. The language is a kind of parody of genteel Victorian when it’s not weirdly contemporary – Lady Margaret never puts on clothes when she can don attire and her friends are never helpful so much as inordinately accommodating - and absolutely none of it reads as if it’s written by someone who knows actual dukes to the point of being formerly married to one.
Actually if you bear in mind that Her Heart for a Compass is published for Mills and Boon, you could say it’s a perfect example of the genre.
Her Heart for a Compass, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York is published by Mills and Boon, £14.99