The second daughter of the Queens’ close friend, the Scottish Duke of Buccleuch, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott is expected to make an advantageous marriage. But Margaret is an impulsive and outspoken girl in a repressive society where women are, quite literally, caged in corsets and required to conform.
When Lady Margaret’s parents arrange a society marriage for her, she tries to reconcile herself to the match. But shortly before her betrothal is announced, Margaret flees, leaving her parents to explain her sudden absence to an opulent ballroom stuffed with two hundred distinguished guests.
Banished from polite society, Margaret throws herself into charitable work and finds strength in a circle of female friends like herself—women intent on breaking the mold, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise. Margaret resolves to follow her heart—a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain where she finds the life she was always meant to lead.
Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.
AAR staffers Caz and Evelyn read the book and got together to chat about it and are here to share their thoughts.
Caz: Before we get started, I want to clarify that Her Heart for a Compass is biographical/historical fiction rather than historical romance (although there are some romantic elements in the story). The authors also make clear in their historical note that not a great deal is known about Lady Margaret’s life and friendships, and that while the novel features a number of actual historical figures, some of her interactions and relationships with them - such as her friendship with Princess Louise - are the products of their imaginations. That’s pretty much par for the course in this type of novel. With that out of the way, did you have any expectations going into this one, Evelyn?
Evelyn: I read the whole thing without realizing that Marguerite Kaye co-wrote it! That said, I had pretty low expectations for this. How about you?
Caz: I wasn’t sure what to expect, actually. I know Sarah Ferguson has written a couple of childrens’ books and her autobiography, so she has some experience as a writer. I was interested in the subject matter though - I had heard of Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, but hadn’t realised she was related to the Duchess. My overall impression of the book is generally a favourable one, although there were a few things that felt a bit ‘off’.
Evelyn: My overall impression is favorable as well. I definitely would have liked it to be a bit shorter. Not sure what the exact page count is (Amazon has it at 560 pages - ed.) but I believe it is over 500 which is too long for this story IMHO. I’m glad we were shown Margaret’s philanthropic leanings but it seemed that maybe some of that could be cut.
Caz: Agreed, it’s not the sort of book you can dash through in an afternoon. The pacing is a bit uneven, especially in the first two-thirds or so, and while the writing is generally solid, there are a few places, especially in the early chapters, that are a bit too “as you know, Bob” and info-dumpy. That said though, I was pulled into the story pretty much straight away; the book opens as Margaret, who, at eighteen, is about to become betrothed to a man she loathes. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, are planning to make the announcement at a ball, and even though Margaret wants to do her duty, she also realises that if she goes through with the betrothal and marriage, she’ll never be able to forgive herself. She leaves the house and heads off into the night; making a narrow escape from someone who wants to take her back (a man who will prove to play a significant role in her life), she ends up making her way rather aimlessly through various areas of London before ending up conversing with a Crimean War veteran. It’s this character, a fellow Scot, who begins to make Margaret aware of the lives people live outside her privileged bubble.
Evelyn: I was afraid at the beginning that Margaret would be an annoying, my-way-or-the-highway rebel heroine. But she was genuinely interested in the lives of people outside her class and the authors do a good job of balancing her empathic side with her desire to honor her own wishes. Margaret is an anomaly for her time and honestly, I was concerned that the book would emphasize women’s independence too heavily. but the authors made her a believable character readers can sympathize with.
Caz: I had similar fears, but like you, those were quickly quashed. The authors do a superb job of showing that Margaret is very much a woman of her time - especially when it comes to her relationship with her father and other family members - but also of showing her to be a progressive, forward-thinker and a woman determined to forge her own path in life and be true to herself. Speaking of her father; his reaction to her refusal to marry the man of his choice is extreme - or it seems that way today - but sadly, I imagine men who behaved that way towards their female relatives were not uncommon at that time.
Evelyn: I suspect you are correct! There were some great men in Margaret’s life as well. I liked pretty much all the men (except her fiancé!) that she interacts with. What did you think of her various love interests?
Caz: They’re all decent and understanding men who really appreciate Margaret for the person she is (as you say, apart from the would-be-fiancé, who is the worst kind of stuffed-shirt!). I’ll just add that the romantic elements in the story are fictional; the real Margaret did get married eventually (at the grand old age of twenty-nine!) and to someone who appears throughout the story. The authors do a fairly good job of building a romance between them over the years and across the miles after she goes to live in America.
Evelyn: Me too! This was probably my favorite part of the stories - the letters between Margaret and Donald. Although the ending took a while to get to, it was very satisfying and I believe she ends up with the right man after all.
What did you think about the way Princess Louise was portrayed? I remember from the book notes that this relationship is fictitious but obviously Louise is not. She’s not the greatest of friends.
Caz: The characterisation of Louise is excellent. No, she isn’t always the best of friends - Margaret often thinks to herself that Louise isn’t the most sympathetic of people and can be selfish - but she also understands, to an extent, why she’s the way she is. Louise is quite blow hot-blow cold, a friendly confidante one moment, and a stand-offish moraliser the next. As far as I can recall - and that’s clear in the book - her life as a daughter of Queen Victoria wasn’t an easy one; her mother’s continuing mourning for Albert was stifling and Louise’s behaviour was under constant scrutiny, so I couldn’t quite blame her for her rather inconsistent attitude, and often felt sorry for her. But she’s superbly written. The correspondence with Louise - and others - appears throughout the book, along with newspaper reports, both of which are interspersed among the lengthier sections of prose. The structure works really well.
Evelyn: I agree that Louise was perfectly written. I, too, thought the book was well crafted. The newspaper articles and letters do a lovely job of moving the story along without slowing us down with too much detail. And, although I bemoaned the length of the story, I never lost interest in it - always wondering what would happen next in Margaret’s life. My only small quibble with the writing is that there are a few times the PoV switches unexpectedly or there is a comment about how someone is feeling that could not have been part of the current PoV.
Caz: That’s the thing - it IS a long book and there are places the pacing flags, but it held my interest. I agree that there are some problems with the writing; as I’ve said above some of the earlier chapters are a bit info-dumpy and in places the writing is a bit… wooden and too wordy. But Margaret is a superbly-written, three-dimensional character and really carried the story through those parts. I also found the various settings - the London slums, Powerscourt in Ireland, and New York City in the 1860s - were well done and really enabled me to see them in my mind’s eye as I was reading.
Evelyn: Before we wrap up, I just want to mention what a lovely job the authors do with the secondary characters. The women that support Margaret in her journey are stellar - they represent all walks of life and many different personalities but they all add up to an interesting group of ladies.
Caz: Even though I don’t really know what I expected from Her Heart for a Compass going in, I came away from it satisfied. I do think the ending was a bit rushed, but it’s a well put-together piece of historical fiction about a little-known historical figure, with a nice dash of romance here and there. I enjoyed it, but the writing and pacing issues we’ve both mentioned mean I’m settling on a B grade overall.
Evelyn: The story kept my interest throughout but it doesn’t reach DIK category for me either. It was a satisfying read, and I, too, feel it’s a very solid B.
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