Sarah Ferguson's steamy debut Mills & Boon novel focuses on the forbidden, passionate romance of a flame-haired heroine who is eager to wed her Scottish lover Donald Cameron - despite her father's disapproval.
The book - Her Heart for a Compass - is a fictional account of the life of the Duchess of York's great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott.
Set in the heart of the Victorian era, it sees 18-year-old Lady Margaret evoke the ire of her parents - the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, close friends of Queen Victoria - by rejecting the suitor they chose for her, Lord Rufus Ponsonby, the Earl of Killin, resulting in her being banished from polite society.
Lady Margaret, who hails from Dalkeith in Scotland and loves horses, then falls madly in love with a priest and, later, an older diplomat - an acquaintance of her father's - before making a career for herself as a writer.
And the hotly-anticipated novel is filled with racy details, such as the moment when the protagonist first sets eyes on her old friend Donald 'astride a strapping grey' and they find themselves in a passionate embrace.
In an extract provided exclusively to FEAMAIL, the novelist tells of the moment Lady Margaret 'read his intention clearly in his eyes as he reached for her, and she made no attempt to evade him as he pulled her into his arms.'
Sarah Ferguson's hotly anticipated debut Mills & Boon novel hits the shelves today - and its flame-haired heroine is more than just a little familiar
The book - Her Heart for a Compass, left - is a fictional account of the life of the Duchess of York's great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott (right)
And in a second passage: 'She lifted her hand to his cheek and felt his sharp intake of breath at her touch. 'Margaret,' he said, his voice both rough and gentle at the same time.'
It goes on to say how 'the roaring of the waterfall became a roaring in her ears as their lips met.'
In real life, Lady Margaret married Donald Cameron of Lochiel - who was an MP and 24th chief of Clan Cameron, in 1875. They went on to have four sons, who have believed to have fought in WWII.
Grounded in extensive historical research, the novel is a story of duty, family, love, and a woman's yearning for freedom and independence in a strict, controlling society.
The Duchess joined forces with her 'collaborator and mentor' Marguerite Kaye - who has written more than 50 novels for Mills & Boon set across the ages and her books and novellas have sold more than 1.5 million copies in over 20 countries.
Throughout Her Heart for a Compass, Lady Margaret's growing confidence leads her to pursue a new life outside of the confines of her aristocratic family seat, and eventually follow her heart.
Fergie, 61, who has penned many bestselling children's books and several works of non-fiction, said it's a 'dream come true' to be a first-time novelist at the age of 61.
'Lockdown gave me the time and space to tell a story that I have wanted to write for 15 years,' she explained. 'When like everyone else I was locked down with my family, it gave me the time to buckle down and write the book.
Sarah added that the idea for the novel came to her when I was asked to do the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? which set her off on a quest to look into the strong, creative Scottish and Irish women in her lineage
'I think people will see the parallels between me and my heroine Lady Margaret – she's a redhead, she's strong willed and she's led by her heart. She attracts the attention of the press and she makes a career in writing. But ultimately, this is a work of fiction and not an autobiography.
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM 'HER HEART FOR A COMPASS'
Donald, astride a strapping grey, slowed from a gallop to a canter as they entered the woodland. He rode well, handling the stallion with a quiet mastery without being showy about it. Beside him, Margaret’s surprised delight at his sudden appearance out of the blue had given way to a definite apprehension. This was Donald, her friend, she reminded herself, but he didn’t look like the man she imagined when she read his letters. It wasn’t only the loss of the beard; it was his smile, she decided, which had not been the chaste smile of an old friend. And the way he had kissed her hand. More perturbingly the effect that kiss had had on her senses.
As they neared the waterfall she slanted him another glance, only to find that he was doing the same. Their gazes met and the world tilted and realigned itself, for in that brief moment there was no mistaking what had passed between them. Donald dismounted. Nervously, Margaret slid off Pennygael, who led the way to the pool, the grey following her. The fresh fallen leaves were gold, chestnut, and burnished amber underfoot. The sun glinted down on the cascade, making diamonds of the curtain of water as it crashed into the pool. 'Isn’t it entrancing?' she asked, joining him.
'Breathtaking,' he agreed, turning towards her. 'But I personally prefer this view.' She read his intention clearly in his eyes as he reached for her, and she made no attempt to evade him as he pulled her into his arms. He was going to kiss her, and she wanted him to. Alarm bells were clanging, but only faintly as she tilted her face to his. He smelled of shaving soap and wet wool, and his coat was damp with the spray from the waterfall. She lifted her hand to his cheek and felt his sharp intake of breath at her touch. 'Margaret,' he said, his voice both rough and gentle at the same time. The roaring of the waterfall became a roaring in her ears as their lips met.
'It's a coming of age story charting the journey of a strong woman who strains against the confines of 1860s society, when women were so controlled. I think the challenges Margaret faces will resonate with today’s readers.'
Speaking on The One Show last night, the Duchess explained: 'My middle name is Margaret and there are certain parallels between my life and this extraordinary, resilient, courageous, strong, red-headed Lady Margaret.
'When I looked into the DNA of my own family, I found this lady that didn't have a voice, a real life lady, Lady Margaret.
'No one knew what she'd achieved, so I made it fiction, and of course it is fiction, but it is my grandmother and my family and it's Scotland, London, Ireland, and then of course she did charity work in America.
'And so of course there's many experiences and experimenting with experiences that Lady Margaret does that I can speak of from my own experiences.'
Sarah added that the idea for the novel came to her when I was asked to do the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?.
'I didn't end up going ahead with that, but it started me off on a quest to look into the strong, creative Scottish and Irish women in my lineage,' she explained. 'I became particularly fascinated with my great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, and the story grew from there.
'What struck me was how small a mark Margaret had made on the history of such an influential family – I could find out almost nothing about her. What kind of person was she? Why had she married so relatively late? She was more or less a blank canvas.
'With real historical events and facts to hand, my imagination took over. I invented a history for her that incorporated real people and events. I was determined to bring her to life and to show that researching and telling the stories of strong women in history of vital importance.'
The parallels between the writer and her protagonist are indeed striking; in the book her heroine speaks of her loathing for endless formal occasions, and her wish to be able to let her rebellious red mop of hair 'tumble wild and loose down her back'.
There are also numerous references to the press, with the character developing a dislike for the Illustrated London News - not dissimilar in its style to Lady Whistledown's gossip-fuelled column in the Netflix drama Bridgerton.
'Honestly, you would think they would have more important topics to write about than what gown I wore to what ball, who I danced with, and whether or not my dance card was full,' Lady Margaret moans to her best friend Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's sixth child.
She later laments: 'I am heartily sick of being the subject of press speculation.'
The Duchess previously told People magazine that 'the world's press has written about my mistakes' when discussing how she advises her daughters to behave.
The parallels between the writer and her protagonist are indeed striking; in the book her heroine speaks of her loathing for endless formal occasions, and her wish to be able to let her rebellious' red mop of hair 'tumble wild and loose down her back'
EXTRACT FROM 'HER HEART FOR A COMPASS' BY SARAH FERGUSON AND, DUCHESS OF YORK, AND MARGUERITE KEY: Setting the Heather on Fire
'The sun struggled to penetrate the smog that hung over the city, but the crowd which had gathered outside the brand new extension to the Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary seemed oblivious of the cold. Though there were some men present, and a clutch of reporters stood huddled together, pencils behind their ears, most of the expectant faces belonged to women and children.
The nurse stood at the back of the crowd, her tummy fluttering with butterflies. The door of the second Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary was freshly painted sunshine yellow, with a brass door knocker at child height in the shape of a cat. A Christmas tree stood to the side of the front step, bedecked with baubles, wooden toys and barley sugars, to be distributed to the waiting bairns after the opening ceremony.
The door opened and the Lord Provost stepped out accompanied by a tall, elegantly-dressed woman. It was her smile that brought back a flood of memories for the waiting nurse.
“I will keep this brief, since you have waited so patiently,” Lady Margaret Cameron said. “I’m delighted to declare the second Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary open.”
Later, inside the sanctuary after refreshments, the nurse bided her time, waiting until Lady Margaret had finished telling a story to a circle of children before approaching her.
“Excuse me, my lady,” she said. “I won’t take up much of your time, only my father would never forgive me if I neglected to introduce myself, and say thank you in person. I’m Heather, Fraser Scott’s daughter.”
“Oh my goodness!” Lady Margaret got up from the stool, looking quite stunned. “The last time I saw you, back in the days when I did charity work in Lambeth, you were ten years old. You’re the image of your father. I was terribly sorry to hear that the dear man had passed on. He was so very proud of you.”
“Pa was a man in a million,” Heather agreed with a watery smile, taking the seat she was ushered towards. “It was his horror stories of the hospital conditions in the Crimea that inspired me to become a nurse.”
Fergie, 61, who has penned many bestselling children's books and several works of non-fiction, said it's a 'dream come true' to be a first-time novelist at the age of 61
Lady Margaret smiled fondly. “Dear Mr Scott, he was determined to give you the education you deserved so that you could make something of yourself. Such a contrast to my own father, who had no ambition for me, save to marry me off.”
“Then the Duke certainly under-estimated you, if I may be so bold. Pa said he was proud to call you his friend.”
“He was very kind to me when I most needed it.” Her ladyship chuckled.
“I wish my own father felt similar pride. I am still confounding his expectations at every opportunity. Tell me, dear Miss Scott, are you working here in Edinburgh?”
“At the Royal Infirmary. I trained as a Nightingale Nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, but Scotland was always the land of my father’s heart.”
“And are you happy here, do you enjoy your work?”
“It’s very rewarding, and I love Scotland but – oh, I don’t know, never mind.”
“What’s wrong? No,” Lady Margaret said when Heather shook her head dismissively. “I can see there’s something bothering you. Won’t you tell me?”
Heather wavered, but the big blue eyes fixed on her were filled with sympathy, and if anyone could understand her feelings, surely it was this woman?
“I just feel I could do so much more, given the opportunity,” she confessed. “I’ve years of experience, far more than some of those doctors doing their rounds, but if you ever dare to speak up, other than to offer them a cup of tea, they’re sore affronted. If it was simply my pride at stake – but it’s not. There was a patient only the other day…”
She hadn’t meant to talk so much, but Lady Margaret listened so intently, and Heather had so much pent up frustration that it was a relief to blurt it all out. “I’m sorry,” she said, finally coming to a halt. “I didn’t mean to commandeer your time like this.”
“Have you ever thought of training as a doctor?”
“Why not? Oh, I know it’s a novel idea here, for a woman, but in America they’ve been teaching medicine to women for years. And I have heard that a Miss Blake has lately set up a dispensary right here in Edinburgh.”
“I’ve heard of Miss Blake,” Heather said. “A formidable woman, by all accounts.”
“Then she’s precisely the person we should speak to about setting you on the right path.”
“I can’t. Aside from the money…”
“We’ll find a way to resolve that. If you were to work for our Sanctuaries in your spare time, for example – yes, I think that might work.”
“But I’m a working-class woman, Lady Margaret. My education is sound but it’s not fancy.”
“Do you want to be a doctor, Miss Scott?”
“More than anything,” Heather admitted, dazed and excited. “But I’ve never imagined it could be anything other than a dream.”
“If you follow your heart then nothing is impossible. I know that better than most. I shall write to Miss Blake. Or perhaps it would be best if we simply paid her a visit. Are you free just now?”
“I’m not on duty for another four hours, but – do you mean it?”
“Of course I do. What are you laughing at?”
“Pa once called you a force of nature. I see what he meant.”
Lady Margaret smiled. “Irrepressible is what my husband calls me. ‘Dr Heather Scott’. It has a nice ring to it.”
“Do you really think I can do it?”
“More importantly, do you think you can?”
Heather thought for a moment, then nodded. “I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but I’m ready to take the first step.” Lady Margaret took her by the hand. “Let’s take it together.”
Heather sneaked a glance as the small gathering took their seats. Lady Margaret had brought her two eldest boys, Donnie and Ewen. Heather smiled to see her lean over and check on Ma, who had travelled to Edinburgh for the first time in her life for the occasion. Neither of her brothers were in attendance, both claiming work demands, but the truth was they thought she had ideas above her station.
Nursing was a suitable career for a woman, but medicine was a male preserve. They had been genuinely shocked at the idea of their sister attending anatomy lessons, never mind putting what she’d learned into practice.
It had been hard work, these past seven years. There had been times when it would have been easier to give up. Those were the days when she recalled Lady Margaret’s words: “Doctor Heather Scott. It has a nice ring to it.”
It did, it had a very nice ring to it, and answering to it never failed to give her a thrill, but today Heather was giving it up, willingly.
She was taking the first step on a new journey, at the side of the man who was taking his place in front of the altar. The organ struck up, and she pulled her veil over her face, steadying herself to take the short, life-changing walk down the aisle. “Doctor Heather McInroy,” she mouthed to herself.
That had a nice ring to it too.'
Lady Margaret also appears to share the novelist's trademark deep curtsies - performing one to the Prince of Wales during a social engagement - and her passion for telling children's stories, which eventually leads to her writing her own.
Sarah has been reading children's books throughout the pandemic on her YouTube channel, Storytime with Fergie and Friends.
The Duchess has dedicated her new book to her 'beautiful girls' Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, whom she said have 'all the strength and courage of Lady Margaret'.
She wrote in the book's foreword: 'They too have followed their hearts and live life on their own terms. This book is for you, Beatrice and Eugenie, with all my love.'
The novel is not short of historical references; its opening scene is set at Montagu House, a late 17th-century mansion in Great Russell Street in the Bloomsbury district of London, which became the first home of the British Museum.
The Duchess has dedicated the book to her 'beautiful girls' Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, whom she said have 'all the strength and courage of Lady Margaret', her heroine
It also features real historical figures and events, offering a compelling look at Victorian England in the wake of Prince Albert's death.
The novel sweeps the reader from the drawing rooms of Queen Victoria's court and the grand country houses of Scotland and Ireland to the slums of London and the mercantile bustle of 1870s New York.
'I have long held a passion for historical research and telling the stories of strong women in history through film and television,' Sarah said. 'I am proud to bring my personal brand of historical fiction to the publishing world.'
Sir Julian Fellowes, screenwriter of Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey, described Sarah's book as a 'tale of daring and determination, set against the glamorous heights, and the harsh restrictions of aristocratic society in the middle years of the British nineteenth century'.
Meanwhile Rosie Nixon, author of Just Between Friends and Editor-in-Chief of HELLO! Magazine, branded it a 'deliciously evocative romp through high society life'.
Sarah has already secured a second book with Mills & Boon and publisher Harper Collins.
'I'm so excited to be diving into this new story, once again with Marguerite Kaye as my co-author,' she said. 'I really feel this book marks a new phase of my life and a whole new chapter for me.
'I'm ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges of writing adult fiction, and to build on what I have learned when writing Her Heart for a Compass.
To promote her work, Sarah was pictured in a Victorian-style floor-length outfit, complete with high-necked blouse, jacket and gloves, sat on a stone bench gazing at a compass she held out in front of her
'I can't reveal too much about the new book at this point, but it will be another period drama, and will build on the world which I have created for this first book.'
To promote her work, Sarah was pictured in a Victorian-style floor-length outfit, complete with high-necked blouse, jacket and gloves, sat on a stone bench gazing at a compass she held out in front of her. Another shot showed her riding a horse wearing a top hat and matching period garb.
She also posed for a series of studio photos, donning a crisp white shirt with her red hair flowing in a style her heroine would have approved.
Mills & Boon - the UK's number one publisher of romantic fiction - was established in 1908. Its books - which are written by women for women - range from historical romance to rom-com and erotica, and one is sold every 10 seconds in the UK.
Executive Publisher for Mills & Boon Lisa Milton commented: 'Across TV, film and books, history continues to grow in popularity.
'This brilliant sweeping story is perfect for our existing readers as well as reaching fans of bestselling novelists such as Philippa Gregory and Anne O'Brien.
'Mills & Boon are honoured to publish the Duchess of York's debut novel as we move into our next century of publishing brilliant books by women for women.'
Her Heart for a Compass, by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (published by Mills & Boon, HarperCollins Publishers) is out on August 3 priced at £14.99 hardback, £6.99 on eBook and £14.49 on audiobook. To buy now click here.