United Kingdom

As the Duchess publishes her first Mills & Boon, JAN MOIR braves the blizzard of clichés 

O mistress Molly, apple-cheeked maid of mine, cease thy nanty narking and fetch my reading glasses, if you will. Such excitement! For Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, has written her first adult novel.

Her Heart For A Compass (Mills & Boon) is a mighty doorstop of a book; a 540-page Victorian melodrama set over an 11-year period featuring the life and loves of one Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott. Who she, I hear you cry! My dear, clues abound, if you care to look for them.

Variously described as ‘Titian-haired’, ‘red-haired’, possessor of ‘naturally auburn eyelashes’ and a ‘rebellious red mop’ that goes ‘frizzy’ when damp, this paragon of high-spirited virtue and ginge-tinged beauty has a fondness for chocolate cake, a corset laced tighter than a cut-throat’s purse and a heart of pure, molten gold.

Ring any bells? Consider that Lady Margaret writes children’s books in her spare time and simply cannot stop doing Good Works, nor gently drawing everyone’s attention to her endless, exquisite kindness. Yes, even after she brings shame and disgrace upon her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, by refusing to marry dry stick Lord Rufus Ponsonby, the Earl of Killin.

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, has written her first adult novel. Her Heart For A Compass (Mills & Boon) is a mighty doorstop of a book; a 540-page Victorian melodrama set over an 11-year period featuring the life and loves of one Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott

‘The very notion of being embraced by him was repellent,’ shudders poor Lady Margaret in the first chapter.

So no toe-sucking for doofus Rufus, methinks. Even if Killin the villain was willin’.

Lady Margaret dusts herself with pearl powder to disguise her freckles, but of course we all know who really lurks beneath the pretty camouflage of that grey silk crinoline. In a recent interview to promote her new book, Sarah, Duchess of York, said: ‘People will spot the parallels between me and my heroine, Lady Margaret. She’s a redhead, she’s strong-willed, she’s led by her heart. But I hope people won’t read too much into it.’

But how can we not, darling Fergs? After all, it is exactly what readers are encouraged to do, stiffened by the knowledge that not only did the rebellious Lady Margaret (which is the author’s own middle name) actually exist, she is a long-lost, real-life ancestor of Sarah’s to boot.

This is the Duchess of York’s 77th book, if you add up all the Budgie The Helicopter titles, the children’s books, the lifestyle books, the diet books, the self-help books, the autobiographies and the books that are a torrid mixture of all of the above

Her Heart For A Compass is packed with real people given the impertinence of fictitious lives. For example, there is an interesting relationship between Lady Margaret and her childhood friend, the thinner and more beautiful Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.

When Margaret gets into scrapes and disgrace, her royal friend is depicted as selfish and disloyal, cools the friendship and berates poor Margaret. Should we presume this was the true nature of the relationship between Fergie and Princess Diana?

Meanwhile, centuries may separate the Duchess and her historical alter ego, but the two women have much in common, including an apparent weakness for men with ‘golden glints’ in their ‘chestnut hair’, horses (ditto) and a loathing of newspapers.

From page 68 onwards, Lady Margaret whines about her difficult relationship with the Press, those inky rapscallions who build her up only to ‘knock me down’ — yea verily, even in ye olde Victorian England. The ‘lurid’ London Illustrated Press determines to do its worst by publishing ‘vile innuendo’ about Margaret, while the Morning Post wonders if she can ‘ever be redeemed in the eyes of society’.

Some things never change. Still, how smart of the Duchess of York to join with Mills & Boon, the UK’s No 1 publisher of romantic fiction. Her co-author in this venture is Marguerite Kaye, one of Mills & Boon’s most proficient and professional historical romance authors. Together, they make a good team.

WHAT, NO TOE-SUCKING!

‘As he pulled her closer, she twined her arms around his neck, and he fastened his lips to hers again, coaxing her mouth open into a very different kiss. The intimacy shocked her; her reaction shocked her even more. His tongue touched hers and she broke away, breathless and utterly confused. Was this what passion felt like?’ 

It must be said however, that the usual briskness of Kaye’s novels has been larded with pages of Ferg-dialogue, epistolary passages of Ferg-correspondence between main characters, Ferg-type scurrilous newspaper reports and an absolute shower of clichés; one gets the impression Fergie has yet to meet a cliché she does not love.

In the fictional world she has created, excuses are always ‘lily- livered’, cobblestones are ‘treacherous’, docksides are a ‘seething mass of humanity’, women are prone to having ‘fits of the vapours’, while a ‘pincushion of stars’ punctures the ‘ink black sky’ without so much as a by your leave.

Mills & Boon readers will find a great deal of what they adore betwixt the pages of Compass, and if you like this sort of thing, then this is the thing you will sort of like.

Yes, there are a few glutinous moments, for it seems that every handsome, full-bodied man we meet — and even one with no legs, sorry no time to explain — falls hopelessly in love with Lady Margaret. They all yearn to rain ardent kisses upon her soft and yielding lips or crush her to their manly chests.

I spent much of the book absolutely melting with terror, gripped by a fear that any minute now, Fergie was going to dive right in and write a panting sex scene, complete with peeling britches, horsey noises and God knows what but, phew! You have to know that no bodices are ripped in the making of this book, and thank heaven for that.

There is a tendresse with a vicar called Sebastian, whom Sarah, sorry, Margaret snogs straight away because he believes that ‘even fallen angels are still angels’.

However, the closest we get to actual rumpy is a knee-trembling moment down by a lake with Cameron of Lochiel, a rugged Scotsman with a ‘cultured Highland lilt’.

He and Lady Margaret kiss under a waterfall when our heroine is exiled to Ireland halfway through the book (don’t ask). Later the romantic action moves to Scotland, where the couple fall into an amorous clinch in a boat on a loch.

Cameron is so affected by this that he has to ‘rearrange his kilt’ afterwards and truly, it is difficult to resist the poetry and beauty of the scene.

For the man with the lilt has a tilt in his kilt. That will not wilt. I’m not saying it’s a stilt. It’s just the way he is built. And Lady Margaret feels no guilt because she is suddenly ‘wanting and caring for nothing save more kisses, and more of him’.

The question is, how much more can we take?

Variously described as ‘Titian-haired’, ‘red-haired’, possessor of ‘naturally auburn eyelashes’ and a ‘rebellious red mop’ that goes ‘frizzy’ when damp, this paragon of high-spirited virtue and ginge-tinged beauty has a fondness for chocolate cake, a corset laced tighter than a cut-throat’s purse and a heart of pure, molten gold

This is the Duchess of York’s 77th book, if you add up all the Budgie The Helicopter titles, the children’s books, the lifestyle books, the diet books, the self-help books, the autobiographies and the books that are a torrid mixture of all of the above.

Over the decades we have been on quite a journey with Fergie, from the innocence of Budgie Goes To Sea (aquatic adventures) to the darker days of Budgie Goes To Seed (affairs, binge-eating, bribes).

It never ends. Faced with the horror of an empty page, Sarah the author becomes a human geyser of gush, an unstoppable tornado of words.

Her various autobiographies are a kind of publishing miracle in themselves, because every time you think the Duchess has emptied her emotional tank and can admit to no more, she comes roaring back a few years later, engines ablaze with a fresh confession and a renewed plea for atonement, redemption and forgiveness.

In 1996 came autobiography My Story, informing readers that ‘as a single mother with few assets and less income than most presumed, I was in deep financial trouble’.

In a recent interview to promote her new book, Sarah, Duchess of York, said: ‘People will spot the parallels between me and my heroine, Lady Margaret. She’s a redhead, she’s strong-willed, she’s led by her heart. But I hope people won’t read too much into it’

Then there was 2001’s Reinventing Yourself With The Duchess of York (‘I have come to think of life as a fast-flowing river’); 2003’s What I Know Now (‘I do not merely rise above old wrongs; I deny them their reality’); and 2011’s Finding Sarah. (‘I was broken and lost, not even sure where I was, but out of this emotional barrenness I knew I had to find me.’)

The question is, has she found herself at last? In a lifestyle article published at the weekend, the Duchess reveals that her staff call her ‘The General,’ that she ‘gets uptight’ if she misses her soft-boiled eggs at breakfast and every other day commits to doing 30 press-ups and 50 sit-ups.

More revealingly, she still considers herself ‘the luckiest girl ever’ because she married Prince Andrew, even though she feels like a lodger in his Windsor home.

Of her ex-husband’s ongoing difficulties and Prince Philip’s lifelong ban on her presence at royal events? Not a whisper.

Perhaps such stoicism is one of the things the Duchess has been taught in therapy, for she has had a great deal of counselling over the years, and it shows. Yet despite all the soul-searching, a surprising innocence still persists. She was recently astounded to be turned down after offering the producers of The Crown her expertise in creating her own character for the next series of the hit Netflix show.

‘I said: “Why can’t I help?”’ she told one magazine.

I think I know why. The Duchess of York is not without her strengths, but it is true that she cannot resist the impulse to self-iconise at every opportunity.

SAVE ALL YOUR KISSES FOR ME . . . 

‘At last their lips met and clung and then opened into a kiss that was tentative and just a little strange . . . he murmured her name, and this set her body alight, urging her to close any gap there was between them, wanting and caring for nothing save more kisses, and more of him.’ 

In Her Heart For A Compass, we are invited to admire, nay adore, the irresistible and feisty Lady Margaret on every page; a character who is written up as though she were Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, Jessica Rabbit and Rita Hayworth, all rolled into one gorgeous, powdered package. Fergie’s need to be loved and admired beats just as strongly in the pages of her 77th book as it did in her first — absolutely nothing has changed.

Yet it is hard not to warm to this Titian-haired lifter of spirits and inadvertently of kilts. Her message seems to be that manners and breeding can ease your passage, but a desire that can drag you off course is no bad thing.

Follow your heart, chorus Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott and Sarah, Duchess of York, and everything else will be all right.

Is that really true? Sometimes, as she surveys the wreckage of her life and her temporary lodgings, I wonder whether even Fergie truly believes that to be the case.

n Her Heart For A Compass, by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is published today by Mills & Boon, Harper Collins, at £14.99.

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