The Mills & Boon reader hoping to set their pulse racing with a titillating period romance will find Her Heart for a Compass disappointing: there are over 100 pages to wade through before Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, our “Titian-haired” heroine, receives so much as a kiss – and even then it is only on her knuckle. Thankfully, “the touch of his lips made her breath catch”, because things aren’t going to get much steamier than that. The novel, written by Sarah Ferguson, the Titian-haired Duchess of York, with the help of Marguerite Kaye, the author of dozens of romance novels, isn’t just chaste, it’s close to asexual. Ferguson is animated by a different kind of fantasy.
This is the story of a horsey red-head, who finds herself ostracised by the royal family and vilified by the rumour-mongering tabloid press, written by a horsey red-head who – we all know the story. Luckily “flame-haired” Margaret succeeds in proving the haters wrong by becoming a social justice warrior, a nascent feminist and a celebrated children’s author and writer.
Ferguson – who incidentally also writes children’s books – says the novel was inspired by learning of her great-great aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas-Scott, who (like our heroine) was the second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. Some of the events, such as her appearance as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Princess Helena and Prince Christian of Schleswig Holstein, and her late marriage to Donald Cameron, a Scottish aristocrat, are historically accurate. The novel, set in the mid-19th century, is deeply researched, with detailed descriptions of aristocratic etiquette and dress codes. The prose is old-fashioned and occasionally awkward, so that it reads a bit like someone has fed a Jane Austen novel through an AI chatbot.
At the beginning of the book, Margaret is to be betrothed to Lord Rufus Ponsonby, Earl of Killin. He is “considered by most to be a presentable looking man” but is, in Margaret’s view, a “decidedly cold fish” who appears to dislike her as much as she loathes him. Nonetheless her parents have given her little choice but to accede. Unable to face her own betrothal party, she runs off into the night and soon finds herself walking through the London docks in her silk evening gown, her finery torn and covered in mud.
What a perfect moment to bump into a sexy saviour, the reader might think. Instead, she befriends a former soldier who lost his legs in the Crimean war, and who prompts a political awakening, opening her eyes to the desperate plight of the deserving poor. Scott displays more honesty, courage and integrity than her cowardly and superficial blue-blooded friends – and he’s even a champion for women’s education! Eventually, she’s rescued by Donald Cameron of Lochiel. The diplomat is “the type of man commonly referred to as handsome or distinguished”, but she dislikes his facial hair and finds him too old. Alas, no spark there (for now).
The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch might have successfully covered up the scandal of their runaway daughter were they not betrayed by a servant, who sold his story to the gutter press, which embellished their article with a few salacious and entirely false details. Plus ca change! Margaret’s mother demonstrates a surprisingly detailed knowledge of media law for a well-bred lady. “It is not libel, Margaret, because our names are not actually printed; but even if they were, one simply cannot respond,” she sighs. Her best friend, the selfish and two-faced Princess Louise, provides a case study in what happens to a person’s soul when they value their public image above all else. She is the source of many unsurprising insights into the dark side of fame. “The newspapers love nothing better than to knock someone from her pedestal, especially when they put her there in the first place,” she tells Margaret.
Margaret is exiled to Scotland and disinvited from royal parties, but uses this time to further her political and moral education. Back in London, she embarks on a secret double life – debutante by night, Mother Theresa figure by day, helping poor mothers and babies in the slums of Lambeth alongside a sexy priest and his saintly sister. She and the priest fall in love, but their foreplay is discussing social inequality. “The injustice of it all must be difficult to bear”, she tells him, reaching out to touch his hand. They kiss, two or three times in total, and he proposes, but of course the marriage will never work, and Margaret is exiled again, this time to Ireland.
If this is all already starting to sound long-winded, that’s because the book is too. It runs to 560 pages and there are still so many plot twists and turns, punctuated by the occasional kiss and hastily-sketched, unconvincing romance. Eventually, the tempestuous but gold-hearted Margaret is disowned by her own family, though not without a generous monthly allowance – a very royal form of abandonment – which she uses to move to America and establish herself as a highly-paid columnist and a pioneering philanthropist, who rails against the apathy and closed-mindedness of her own class.
Almost as an afterthought, Margaret reunites with the Scottish aristocrat who, it turns out, was the love of her life all along, though she so rarely mentions him. Donald Cameron is the rare nobleman who appreciates her for who she is, a talented writer. Finally together and alone, they stand on the deck of a boat, observing the autumn trees on the banks of Loch Arkaig.
She says of the trees: “I prefer the way they take their time to modestly undress here.”
“That’s a very literary turn of phrase.”
“I’ve been commissioned to write a journal-style series for the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine comparing life here and in New York, I might use it for that.”
“What else are you writing, apart from the journal for – is it Demorest’s?”
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