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“Headstrong” great aunt inspires Duchess

9 August 2021
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Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York will discuss her first adult fiction novel on 28 August, in an exclusive highlight of WORD Christchurch Festival. Appearing over the internet (with a cuppa in hand no doubt) the Duchess will chat with author Nicky Pellegrino about the sweeping historical romance, Her Heart for A Compass. Here, she answers a few preliminary questions about the book and its intriguing subject. 

Why write your first novel now? 

It’s been an ambition of mine to write this story for the last 15 years. In the end it was about assembling the right team around me to make it happen and having the time to do it. Working with my collaborator Marguerite Kaye, and everyone at Harper Collins and Mills & Boon, I’ve finally done it and become a first-time novelist at the age of 61 and I am so proud. The coronavirus pandemic, when like everyone else I was locked down with my family, gave me the time to buckle down and write the book. 

How much of the book is based on your own life experiences?  

There are some obvious parallels between me and my heroine, my great-great aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas-Scott: she’s a redhead; she is determined to make her own way in life; and like me she can be headstrong. She also takes up a career in writing, and works really hard for the charitable causes she cares so passionately about. But ultimately Her Heart for a Compass is a work of fiction, not an autobiography. 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.  

The book is based on your great-great aunt. Why?  

The idea for the novel came to me 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. 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 is of vital importance. 

What would you like readers to take away from the story? 

The main message I would like readers to take away from Margaret’s story is that no matter whether you make mistakes or get it all wrong, you keep going and fight for what you believe is your truth. You have to lead with your heart. Personally, I feel more robust, authentic, confident in myself and who I am and where I'm going than ever, and that feeling is very much reflected at the end of Margaret’s journey in Her Heart for a Compass. 

What’s next for you?  

My second novel for Harper Collins and Mills & Boon is next, and I’m so excited to be diving into this new story, once again with Marguerite Kaye as my co-author. 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. 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. 

Book your tickets online. Submit a question for the Duchess in advance and, if selected, you’ll be able to ask her yourself on the morning of the 28th

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