There are many reasons to be thankful for Prince Andrew’s exit from the royal family’s inner sanctum. However, by far the most amusing is that it has forced the revival of an old favorite. Please, everyone, let’s welcome back Sarah Ferguson: Shameless Huckster.
Close observers will already be aware of Ferguson’s maniacal, Shark Tank, hurl-it-at-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to business. But while she previously took in everything from hair straighteners to food blenders, the last 12 months have seen an enormous ramping up of her ham-handed entrepreneurship.
There was Duchess Inc., her nondescript Goopalike designed to sell towels and biscuits that somehow combined “glamour” with “compassion.” There was her “incredible” seven-book children’s-publishing deal, which turned out to be with a small, independent Australian outfit. There were her unstoppably ludicrous $2,300 monogrammed fountain pens.
Meanwhile, her highest-profile gig at the moment appears to be her slightly Colonel Kurtzy YouTube channel, where she dresses up in flowery costumes and reads children’s books to an audience of almost nobody.
And now, to top them all, comes news of her first romance novel. Her Heart for a Compass is described as “the fascinating journey of a woman, born into the higher echelons of society, who desires to break the mold, follow her internal compass (her heart) and discover her raison d’être.” And while it’s nice of the publisher to provide that aside to reassure would-be readers that this is definitely a novel about a woman and not a robot or a pigeon or anything, the description does suggest that this might simply be a work of lightly embellished autobiography.
Indeed, Ferguson herself has claimed that the book came about during a flare of solipsism. Her Heart for a Compass is an invented history of her great-great-aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, a woman who Ferguson says “intrigued me because she shared one of my given names.” Ferguson’s middle name is Margaret. Not much is known about this imagined history of Lady Margaret. However, considering the book’s publisher, it seems certain that it will contain between three and five ostentatiously overwritten sex scenes.
The description does suggest that this might simply be a work of lightly embellished autobiography.
You see, Her Heart for a Compass is a Mills & Boon book. And Mills & Boon is nothing short of a British institution—an English version of Harlequin. Although it began in 1908 as a general publisher, it quickly discovered where the real money was: cheap, simplistic mass-market romance novels that weren’t afraid to get hot and heavy. Mills & Boon books may vary in setting or explicitness, but their essence will almost always remain the same.
There will be a wealthy, masterful man, and he will chase an already supine woman into submission in order for there to be a happy ending. In Ferguson’s case that man is likely to be Lord Rufus Ponsonby. In the sole existing extract, Ferguson writes that Ponsonby’s “angular jaw was invariably clean-shaven; his hair was perfectly coiffed. His tall, rather lean figure was always immaculately dressed. His aquiline profile was suitably haughty as befitted an earl of the realm.” Phwoar!
The books are also incredibly popular. The Mills & Boon Web site estimates that in the U.K. someone buys a new title every 10 seconds. This is an astonishing feat, until you realize that Mills & Boon releases a whopping 700 books annually, many of them sold through subscription plans. This month alone, new titles have included Regency Scandal: The Road to Ruin, Hot Heroes: Undercover Temptation, and the incredibly named Australian Nights: Heat of the Night: The Costarella Conquest.
Ferguson co-wrote Her Heart for a Compass with Mills & Boon all-star Marguerite Kaye, who currently has more than 50 books available to purchase on the Mills & Boon Web site, among them How to Seduce a Sheikh, Bitten by Desire, and Claimed by the Wolf Prince.
Although many Mills & Boon books are now sold in e-book form, the publisher still prints physical copies. These are sent to bookshops, where they remain available for exactly 30 days before they’re ripped from the shelves and often pulped. Indeed, the pulping of unsold Mills & Boon books is so widespread that, in 2003, two and a half million of them were acquired by a Tarmac company in order to reinforce a section of the top layer of the 27-mile M6 Toll motorway in the Midlands.
The Mills & Boon Web site estimates that in the U.K. someone buys a new title every 10 seconds.
However, despite the near inevitability of her book’s eventually becoming part of Britain’s mass-transit network, Ferguson has high hopes for Her Heart for a Compass. Following the success of Netflix’s Bridgerton, she revealed to Us Weekly earlier this month that “I definitely will be talking to Shondaland about making Her Heart for a Compass into a TV series.”
And while that isn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility—in 2009, Ferguson managed to leverage her royal connections into producing the Emily Blunt vehicle The Young Victoria—surely a show-runner with the high-low sensibilities of Shonda Rhimes would prefer to look a little closer to home. Imagine this: a series about a minor royal who finds herself drowning in such colossal debt that she has to subsidize her job selling blenders on QVC by taking a loan from a billionaire pedophile. Perhaps that’s an idea for book two.
Her Heart for a Compass, by Sarah Ferguson, is out now
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL