Fergie's Her Heart for a Compass is branded 'boring slog' with no sex

Fergie’s first bodice-ripper leaves critics turned off! Her Heart for a Compass is branded a ‘boring slog’ with no sex

  • Duchess of York’s debut adult novel is a fictional account of the life of her flame-haired great-great-aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott
  • Her Heart for a Compass was written with a veteran Mills & Boon writer
  • But reviewers describe the book as ‘boring’ and a ‘slog’ with an ‘insipid’ heroine
  • Others say it is ‘PG’ with less sex than one would expect from Mills & Boon 

Sarah Ferguson’s hotly anticipated debut Mills & Boon novel hits the shelves today.

But any readers hoping for a heaving bodice-ripper will be left disappointed, according to critics, who have been left turned off by the ‘interminable doorstopper’.

Her Heart For A Compass (Mills & Boon) is a 540-page Victorian melodrama set over an 11-year period featuring the life and loves of one Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, who bears more than a passing similarity to her flame-haired creator.

Teenage Lady Margaret evokes 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. She 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.

Reviews have branded the book ‘boring’ and a ‘slog’ with an ‘insipid’ main character and a tone that jumps between ‘archaic and contemporary’. Almost all commented on the lack of sex and said it was at the ‘PG end’ of Mills & Boon.

Here, FEMAIL reveals what Britain’s reviewers had to say… 

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)

The Daily Telegraph: ‘The couple of hours it took to slog through it still felt interminable’

‘Nothing really happens – a lot’: The Daily Telegraph’s Hannah Betts said the book was a slog 

‘As befits Oprah’s first duchess confidante, La Ferguson has declared her message to be: “You keep going and fight for what you believe is your truth.” And how. For, yesterday, I had the opportunity to plough through this 540-page doorstopper and can tell you that it certainly does keep going – on and on and on…

‘Fergie’s tome arrived from her publishers after some error of the blank document/missing bike variety. A delaying tactic? Who can say? Yet, the couple of hours it took to slog through it still felt interminable. For my own truth is that I was bored by Fergie’s book.

‘Margaret is insipid, while it’s not entirely clear who the book is for. Romantics will be unimpressed by a total of three-ish snogs. 

‘History buffs will be unimpressed by a passing reference to the Second Reform Act, while feminists will not feel particularly enlightened to learn that life for wimmin was wont to be a bit rum.’

The Times: ‘It is very silly but would be enjoyable if the novel were more fun’


The PG end of the Mills & Boon spectrum: The Times’ Sarah Ditum warns about the lack of sex

‘Her Heart for a Compass, however, stays resolutely at the PG end of the Mills & Boon spectrum. Margaret’s exploits amount to nothing more knee-trembling than a few kisses with tongues. For all Ferguson’s insistence on her heroine’s “adventurous mind” and “restless spirit”, precious little of it is directed towards sex and love seems like a sideshow…

‘[It] is very silly but would be enjoyable if the novel were more fun. Sadly — and despite the involvement of Kaye, a Mills & Boon veteran — it is a slog. There is never any sense of Margaret being in actual peril, or needing to overcome an obstacle… 

‘”So what?” you might say, isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy? But it seems to be a fantasy of a specific kind. Margaret faces down brutal press coverage, achieves self-sufficiency, and is eventually returned to the bosom of the family. 

‘It is understandable that this is what Ferguson — bullied by the tabloids and kept at a distance by the royals — might dream of. It is less obvious why this chaste wish fulfilment should be the stuff of other people’s fantasies.’

Evening Standard: ‘It’s tosh, of course, but amiable tosh’

Outisder looking in: Melanie McDonagh feels like Fergie doesn’t use her insider knowledge 

‘It’s tosh, of course, but amiable tosh. Yet what’s baffling is that for someone who presumably knows her way around the aristocracy, our author sounds so very much like an outsider with her nose pressed against the glass, who doesn’t know how grandees actually talk but tries to make up for it by the lavish use of titles and refined diction; there’s a pinkie held aloft in every sentence. 

‘The language is a kind of parody of genteel Victorian when it’s not weirdly contemporary – Lady Margaret never puts on clothes when she can don attire and her friends are never helpful so much as inordinately accommodating – and absolutely none of it reads as if it’s written by someone who knows actual dukes to the point of being formerly married to one. 

‘Actually if you bear in mind that Her Heart for a Compass is published for Mills and Boon, you could say it’s a perfect example of the genre.’ 

Guardian: ‘Bridgerton this is not’ 

Redeemable features: The Guardian’s Alison Flood praises the historical research

‘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.’ 

i: ‘This book cackles with female energy and a whisper of Georgette Heyer’


Perfect holiday read: The i’s Kat Brown says it’s the ideal book to bring on holiday

‘Despite the best efforts of the stuffy title and cover to put you off, Sarah Ferguson’s first novel for adults is a delightful and surprisingly funny period romp that deserves a place on every sun lounger… 

‘In other hands, Magaret’s life could have threatened to become a multi-volume saga in the Catherine Cookson vein. Instead, this is a jolly addition to the current vogue for “Bridgerton lit” – uplifting, inspiring and with enough sadly anachronistic plotlines about social change and freedom.

‘By the end, you’ve had as much fun as Fergie and team clearly had creating it. This book cackles with female energy and a whisper of Georgette Heyer. Let’s hope Fergie has more interesting relatives to inspire her back to the page.’

And what the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir had to say…  

Between the covers of Fergie’s bodice ripper: A passionate red-headed aristocrat, the beastly Press out to get her… and saucy moments with a hunk in a kilt – JAN MOIR braves the blizzard of clichés in the Duchess’s first Mills & Boon

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.’


‘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?’ 

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.

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.

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’.


‘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.’ 

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?

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.

Sarah Ferguson was spotted leaving the BBC after appearing on The One Show last night to promote her book 

The Duchess of York looked radiant following her TV appearance last night

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’.

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.

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.

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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