Our book reviewer, Janet Gordon, loves a good romance and these two book reviews come with lots of royal connections.
Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson Duchess of York (Published by Mills & Boon £14.99)
I’ve always loved “Regency romances”, stockpiling them to de-stress after long hours at work, way before Bridgerton erupted into our consciousness. And I’ve discovered I even had the complete set of Bridgerton (written by Julia Quinn) novels lurking on my bookshelves. Most Regency romances and romance novels of every genre are published by Mills & Boon, who also do a subscription service for those of us who like keeping postie busy.
So who better to publish Her Heart for a Compass – a debut adult novel from Sarah Ferguson, the flame-haired Duchess of York. It’s a weighty tome at nearly 600 pages, so a lot of reading for your money, and not a regency romance, but a Victorian one.
I’ll be honest; the first couple of chapters didn’t impress me. But a few pages into Chapter Three, and I found myself not only eagerly reading on but enjoying what I was reading.
The novel’s heroine is Lady Margaret Montague Douglas Scott, a flame-haired, strong-willed (remind you of anyone?) daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. She is the bosom pal of Princess Louise, second daughter of Queen Victoria. On the night of her debut, she has discovered that her parents are about to announce her engagement to Killin, a stuffed shirt aristocratic gentleman many years her senior who wants the cachet of being married to a Duke’s daughter. Lady Margaret, who has pleaded and cried that marriage to Killin is abhorrent to her, panics and in the last few minutes before the announcement, slips out into the garden. Her excuse is for fresh air, but in reality, unable to bear the thought of going back inside to her fate, she runs away. She runs through the garden gate and onto the banks of the Thames ending up at Charing Cross railway station, where she falls into conversation with a double amputee from the Crimean War. The honest soldier makes sure she is safe, and she’s delivered home by a guest at the ball, Lochiel, who had, unbeknown to Lady Margaret, followed her headlong flight and persuaded her to come home.
And there begin Lady Margaret’s adventures. Her horrified father, shocked at the public scrutiny of his private life, banishes his daughter from polite society. And far from being the subservient daughter that the Duke wanted, Lady Margaret will not be subdued.
In collaboration with well known Mills & Boon writer Marguerite Kay, Sarah Ferguson’s extensive research and writing talents have given us a totally enthralling family saga based on historical accuracy but laced with insights into the morals of the day, our heroine’s sense of duty and independence and real historical figures and events.
I can see this novel being on many many Christmas wish lists.
The Duchess by Wendy Holden (Welbeck £12.99)
And keeping to a royal theme is the latest from Wendy Holden.
I’ve long been addicted to reading about Wallis Simpson – the American double divorcee who rocked the UK back in the 1930s when David aka the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of George V fell headlong in love and refused to hear any words of dismay, caution or anything other than undiluted praise. Unable to marry Wallis and remain King, he caused a constitutional crisis when he abdicated after just 326 days as King Edward VIII, thus paving the way for his younger brother Bertie to become King and Princess Elizabeth – now our longest-serving monarch as Elizabeth II – to become heir.
Through my extensive reading including Wallis Simpson’s own autobiography ‘The Heart Has its Reasons’ and ‘A King’s Story’ (Edward VIII’s own autobiography (both still available on eBay), my opinion has always been that Wallis was a demon, a homewrecker, a Nazi sympathiser and any other hurtful adjective you want to throw at her and that the King was a weak individual and as such England was far better off with the abdication. However after reading Wendy Holden’s fantastic faction novel “The Duchess” I’m now in two minds about Wallis, although not about the Abdication.
Wendy Holden has written an absolutely enchanting novel featuring such a mixture of actual fact and imagined fiction that it’s almost impossible to think of Wallis as anything other than a lonely and misunderstood woman, whatever is her ‘truth’. Coming over to the UK after extricating herself from an abusive marriage to a drunken airman, Wallis marries Ernest Simpson, a sweet and retiring head of a family shipping firm, but who has no inkling of how lonely Wallis is, looking in on the outside at all the giddy young things enjoying cocktails at the Café Royal, whilst she seems doomed to spend her time with her nose metaphorically pressed against the window. Exhorted by Ernest to visit London’s free attractions (since they are chronically broke) Wallis, standing outside St James Palace is stunned as the Prince of Wales’ car passes by and she glimpses what she thinks is the “real” prince, seemingly cutting a lonely figure in the back of the car. From then on, she becomes obsessed.
When she realises that Maud, Ernest’s staid older sister has an entrée of sorts into that world she wangles an invitation where she is thrilled to meet Cecil Beaton, is thrilled to be invited to join a pageant about fish (!) and eventually is taken in part under the wing of Thelma Furness (David’s mistress) and Wallis is launched into society. Thrown into a panic when she receives an invitation via Thelma to spend a weekend at Fort Belvedere, the Prince of Wales fairytale weekend retreat which he has completely refurbished himself, Ernest, simply doesn’t want to go and Wallis has to use all her powers of persuasion to get him to agree. Wallis simply can’t believe her luck as she’s shown around, and as she writes to her Aunt Bessie, back home in Baltimore, it’s ‘Wallis in Wonderland’.
The Duchess is such an enthralling mix of known facts and fiction that I defy anybody interested in such long-ago scandal not to read and love it. I couldn’t stop reading it, and yet at the same time, I didn’t want to get to the end. Such a dilemma and again I can envisage this being on countless Christmas wish lists.
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