Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson review – Mills & Boon debut is chaste good fun

She is a spirited, Titian-haired, freckled beauty, whose curls just won’t quit. While initially submitting to the strictures of high society and the tribulations of the marriage market, she endures a pasting from the press before emerging triumphant, throwing off the weight of expectations to become her true self. And write a children’s book.

The heroine of the Duchess of York’s debut novel for adults, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, bears no small resemblance to its author, in both looks and life story. Her Heart for a Compass is out on Tuesday from romance publisher Mills & Boon, but readers hoping for the sexy shenanigans usually found in the publisher’s output will be disappointed. While Margaret indulges in a handful of kisses, and at one point has a man “adjusting his kilt, swearing under his breath”, the pleasures she experiences are all very much above the waistline.

Ferguson writes in an author’s note that the novel was “15 years in the making”, beginning when she discovered that her great-great-great-grandparents were the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, and that their second daughter, Margaret, was a redhead with a birthday “within a few days” of Ferguson’s own. The real details of Margaret’s own life are scant; Ferguson depicts her as a woman who is initially the toast of London, described in gossip rags as a “Titian-haired breath of fresh Scotch air”. In the novel, Margaret’s hair is frequently featured: it’s variously a “rebellious red mop”, a “sodden mass of rebellious curls”, a “scarlet flag, wild curls whipping around her face”, and “burnished autumn leaves”. One admirer opines: “She was very naive but, by heavens, she had real spirit, too, no one could doubt that.”

But the press vilifies her over her refusal to marry a man she loathes, so Margaret goes to live in exile in Ireland, helping the poor and starting to write her own children’s stories. She makes her way in New York as a journalist and philanthropist, and eventually marries the man who has loved her for years.

Ferguson has written the novel with veteran Mills & Boon author Marguerite Kaye, whose recent output (A Forbidden Liaison With Miss Grant; The Truth Behind Their Practical Marriage) does not shy away from the horizontal. Here, Margaret is given some clinches, including with an Anglican priest who inspires her work with the poor (“time seemed to stop, along with her breath, until he gave a soft sigh, and she lifted her face and surrendered her lips to his”), and with the man who eventually wins her heart (“deep, starving kisses, adult kisses, their tongues tangling, hands clutching and clinging”). But Bridgerton this is not.

Instead, running to 500-plus pages, Her Heart for a Compass sees Margaret realising that she doesn’t need to “conform to the rules set down by society”, that a Buccleuch woman doesn’t need a strategic marriage, and that her despairing cry, “no one seems to care that underneath I’m an actual person”, isn’t altogether true.

The novel veers around somewhat in tone, from archaic – Margaret’s priest informs her that “you cannot have imagined I would have kissed you in such a manner unless my intentions were honourable” – to the entirely contemporary – “Ha! That’s nothing,” says our heroine – but Her Heart for a Compass is nonetheless well-researched, and a glimpse into the strictures of life as a pampered, rich, upper-class woman. It wears its research lightly, with intriguing forays into topics such as Victorian bathing dresses, and the Queen’s predilection to “pour her tea from one cup to another until it was adequately cooled”. It’s an odd fit with the Mills & Boon imprint, however, where novels tend to run to 200-odd pages, and are considerably steamier.

The Guardian was turned down for an interview with Ferguson, but the duchess told Town and Country magazine that “I have thrown my voice into each line and I’m very proud”, while Kaye said that “right from the start it was clear she wasn’t going to be sitting in the back seat on this … She had a clear vision for what the story was that she wanted to tell, and she wanted to be involved in every stage of the process.”

The lack of sex in the novel, according to Town and Country, is “in deference to historical sexual mores”, a reason that doesn’t usually stop Mills & Boon writers. Ferguson is promising this will change in her second novel. “I decided I would remove bodice-ripping from this book, number one. But I’m now on book number two with Marguerite … and I have got a real bodice-ripping coming for you. This is going to make Fifty Shades of Grey just a walk in the park,” she told the magazine. However, according to Kaye, the duchess – spirited, Titian-haired, unconventional – is just “teasing”.

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