In authoring her debut novel, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York took the "write what you know" philosophy to heart.
"Her Heart for a Compass” (William Morrow, 560 pp., out now) follows young noblewoman Lady Margaret Montagu Scott as she wrestles independence from her family, the aristocracy and patriarchal society.
While the duchess’ protagonist is not an exact facsimile of herself, the similarities are striking. Both Ferguson and Lady Margaret (who is based on one of Ferguson’s ancestors) are redheads with polarizing reputations. They have played the role of social pariah, been blacklisted by the aristocracy and – eventually – found redemption in living life their own way.
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Margaret is hounded by the British press, her reputation besmirched by innuendo. “But no one seems to care that underneath I’m an actual person,” Margaret tells her friend Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. Ferguson was called the “Duchess of Pork” and “frumpy Fergie” by the tabloids and was the subject of myriad scandalous headlines. “I really did mind when all those terrible articles were written about me, and sometimes still are,” Ferguson recently told the U.K.’s Sunday Times. “I have a therapist and I rely on friendship, my family and my work to keep me focused on what’s important.”
Even the novel’s Victorian-era details parallel Ferguson’s own story. Margaret, like the former member of the royal family, is pressured to put duty above all and has to fight (and lose friends and family) to be able to work outside the restrictions of the aristocracy. They both find solace in writing as a profession and children’s charities as a calling. Margaret founds a sanctuary for New York’s poorest children and donates funds from her children’s books to help fund the endeavor. Among her many charitable activities, the duchess founded Children in Crisis in 1993 (which merged with the Street Child nonprofit). She’s also written many children’s books, including “Ballerina Rosie” and the “Little Red” series, and wrote a memoir, “Finding Sarah.”
Ferguson’s strategy of pulling from her own experiences makes for an intriguing coming-of-age story fans of historical drama are sure to enjoy. Co-authored with Marguerite Kaye, the novel draws from extensive research to paint a rich, believable picture of 19th-century life as Margaret finds herself in England, Scotland, Ireland and America. In the book’s historical note, Ferguson details what’s fact and what’s fiction. The locations, including Dalkeith Palace outside Edinburgh (where Margaret is banished after refusing her arranged marriage), are real. Many, the author says, can still be visited. Margaret, her parents and the man she marries were all real, too, though Ferguson cautions that much of Margaret’s storyline is “entirely imagined.”
Our one qualm, if you can call it that, is the novel’s billing as a historical romance. If we’re talking the Shakespearean notion of romance, where all’s well in the end, then sure, this is a romance. But readers expecting “Bridgerton” levels of sexual tension will be disappointed. Indeed, the man Margaret ends up with graces just a handful of the novel’s more than 500 pages. Key moments in their love story – falling for each other, loss and reconciliation – are over too quickly and without the gut-wrenching scenes you’d expect from a romance novel.
Yet, we say this as a clarification rather than a knock: Margaret’s story of courage and self-discovery stands strong on its own. Just like she does.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sarah Ferguson weaves own history, drama and red hair into debut novel