Fergie on being a royal granny: ‘I have them for sleepovers – they think I’m hilarious’

This week we were lucky enough to get an exclusive chat with Sarah, Duchess of York to discuss the paperback launch of her best-selling Mills & Boon novel for adults, Her Heart for a Compass.

Scroll down for her fabulous short story, written just for us, and read on here for more about her role as loving granny to the youngest generation of royals, August Brooksbank and Sienna Mapelli Mozzi…

Vivacious, warm and charmingly self-deprecating, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York is rarely out of the headlines, whether that’s for her numerous charitable causes, her fashion choices, soul-searching or, naturally, her royal links.

But despite all this, she has always made one thing abundantly clear, and does so again in her exclusive chat with OK! – family comes first, no ifs, no buts.

Ever since her high-profile divorce in 1996, Sarah has amicably co-parented her daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, with the Duke of York, even staying in his Berkshire home while in the UK. Over the years, she has ensured the pair have been her number one focus, nurturing a close bond as mother, confidante, friend and protector.

She often talks of her “deep gratitude” for her “glorious girls”, and tells OK! how fiercely proud she is of them, carving out their own careers and, for Beatrice, overcoming the challenges of dyslexia. Of course, in the last 15 months, her role in their lives has expanded even further with the joyful addition of her gorgeous grandchildren.

In February 2021, Eugenie, 32, and her husband Jack Brooksbank, were delighted to announce the arrival of their son August Philip Hawke (or ‘Augie’, as Sarah sweetly refers to him during our chat). Although he’s her first biological grandchild, Sarah reportedly already regarded herself as a grandmother to Beatrice’s stepson Christopher Woolf, or ‘Wolfie’, five – proof indeed of her ‘family first’ mantra.

Last September, seven months after Augie’s birth, Beatrice, 33, and her husband, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, welcomed their daughter, Sienna Elizabeth.

Describing her grandchildren as a “beautiful blessing” in her life, and her daughters as “phenomenal mothers”, Sarah, 62, confides to us that she takes a specific approach to her VIG (Very Important Grandmother, don’t you know!) duties, by being present but never pushy.

“I think, as a grandparent, you have to let your children get on with being the parents they want to be, and not interfere too much,” she says, about wisely allowing her daughters to find their own way in early motherhood.

Nevertheless, one area of the little ones’ daily lives that she does fully engage with is storytime. Sarah has a lifelong love of books and truly relishes those precious moments when she gets to share a storybook at bedtime with Augie and his cousins. Meal times, on the other hand, are more challenging, but just as fun by all accounts (more of that later, in our chat with the Duchess).

It was a pleasant surprise when, in April 2020, shortly after the first Covid lockdown began, Sarah announced she was launching a children’s virtual storytelling session on her YouTube channel.

Showing just how dedicated she is in her quest to encourage young people to enjoy literature, her daily stories on camera for Storytime With Fergie And Friends are still going strong, following a brief few weeks’ pause earlier this year.

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Just last week, surrounded as always by colourful balloons, soft toys and flowers, she read Why I Love Grandma’s Place by LC Wilson – surely a reflection of how besotted she is with her grandchildren.

She often dresses up – hairbands adorned with carrots or butterflies aren’t unheard of – and has been joined by celebrity guests such as Peter Andre, and European royals including former Princess Tessy of Luxembourg with her son, Prince Noah.

Last summer, she added yet another new string to her bow, as an author of historical romantic fiction for adults. Far from being Sarah’s print debut, Her Heart For A Compass is actually her 77th book to date. Yes, you read that right – 77th!

Her prolific writing career spans decades following the release of her first ever book in 1989, the much-loved Budgie The Little Helicopter, which spawned an animation series and cute merchandise.

Less-than-kind critics were left eating humble pie when Her Heart For A Compass, published by the legendary Mills & Boon, and penned with the help of her co-writer Marguerite Kaye, made the UK bestsellers chart after its initial launch in hardback.

The book has just been released in paperback form and Sarah couldn’t be more excited, telling OK! that, such is her passion for writing, she finds herself creating stories wherever she might be, even in “a restaurant somewhere, watching people go by, making up stories about them.”

If you haven’t yet read it, the novel is set in Victorian England and features the rebellious red-haired Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, who flees her first marriage in search of true love and the meaning of her entitled life.

Some of the parallels with Sarah are intentional, including her heroine’s flame- red hair, but in fact the lead character is based loosely on the life of her very own ancestor who bears the same name, her great-great-aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, the second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch.

Speaking at the time of the novel’s launch last August, Sarah claimed that like Lady Margaret, she too has learnt “to love myself with all my flaws”. She also says that these days, in her sixties, “I feel more robust, authentic and confident in myself, who I am and where I’m going than ever.”

Her happiness appears to be rooted not only in her meaningful career and her self-acceptance, but in her devoted family, who are no doubt a source of immense comfort to her during the difficult times she has encountered in the past. The Duchess and her daughters call themselves ‘The Tripod’ because, as Sarah has pointed out previously, “The three of us always support each other, no matter what.”

Referring to her own ups and downs, which are thankfully far behind her now, she has turned what she calls her past “mistakes” into a positive, telling her daughters, “I’ve gone ahead of you to clear the way, so you can dream and grow and be who you are.”

Here, the Duchess gives a wonderful insight into her tight-knit family life, expresses her thoughts on the long reign of her former mother-in-law, Her Majesty the Queen, and reveals where she herself seeks out romance these days…

When writing your book, you delved back into the imagined lives of your ancestors – what does family mean to you?

As I think everybody can see, family is the most important thing in my life. I believe very strongly in the unity of family, and try to stand firm to that whenever I can.

How much are you enjoying your role as grandmother, and how hands-on are you with your grandchildren?

Most of all, I’m marvelling at the brilliance of my girls, who have turned out to be phenomenal mothers. It makes me very proud. I think as a grandparent, you have to let your children get on with being the parents they want to be, and not interfere too much. But I’m always there to pick up the broccoli when it goes flying at mealtimes.

Do you ever knit for them?

I don’t knit, sadly, but there’s a lovely lady who lives near me who does, and she has made some lovely pieces for the children.

Have you had the grandchildren to stay yet, to read them bedtime stories?

Yes, of course – they have been to stay many times. I get quite animated when I read children’s stories, and Augie thinks I’m hilarious.

What are you known as – Granny, Nana or Grandma?

Sienna is only eight months old, and August is one, so they’re not really speaking yet, and haven’t figured out what they want to call me! Whatever it is will be fine.

Do you look forward to sharing your own experiences with them?

As I’ve said, I think grandparents should leave their children to do the parenting. But I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that I will share with the grandchildren if they are open to that.

Do your daughters read previews of your work?

Yes, they do get previews of my work. They are both very creative in their own ways. Eugenie works in art – she’s a director for the art dealer Hauser & Wirth, and is immersed in that world, which she loves.

Beatrice is dyslexic and has been very open about that – she does a lot of work to raise awareness with charities in that field. Her dyslexia doesn’t stop her having a love of reading. She’s good with numbers, and has pursued a career with a US tech firm.

Where do you find your inspiration for your writing?

I would say the biggest inspirations for me, certainly with this book, have been untold stories of women who have been largely forgotten by history. I delved into the world of my ancestors and found a long line of strong-willed, red-headed women, and decided to bring one of them, my great- great-aunt Lady Margaret, back to life as the central character in my story.

I’m very inspired by the stories of women whose voices weren’t heard at the time, but can be now. They’re like whispers down the ages.

How uplifting will Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee be next month?

I think it’s a time when the whole nation can unite and put the “Great” back into Great Britain. There is nothing better than a street party to bring a community together, and it’s a chance for us all to celebrate the extraordinary life and service of our Queen.

What do you think Her Majesty will draw from the experience?

She has given her whole life selflessly to the people of the UK and the Commonwealth.

I think people are increasingly excited about the idea of being able to show her how grateful they are for all she has done in her 70 years on the throne.

How has it felt to see your novel in print last year and receive so much lovely feedback?

I think it’s one of the most amazing things you can achieve to have a book in print. No one can ever take it away from you and, if you’re lucky, people will immerse themselves in the story you’ve woven for them. To see an idea I first came up with 15 years ago come to fruition has been pretty extraordinary for me.

What is your writing process and where do you like to be when you write?

I write all the time in my head, wherever I am. I love storytelling to myself and others. There is nothing better for me than sitting outside or in a restaurant somewhere, watching people go by and making up stories about them.

As a romantic novelist, how important is romance to you personally, particularly in later life?

I find romance in nature. I enjoy the colours of flowers and the majesty of trees, and I find the great outdoors to be endlessly romantic.

Finally, what holiday reads do you enjoy and would recommend to others for their summer break?

I enjoy anything by Ken Follett, Jeffrey Archer or Julian Fellowes. I’m also constantly dipping in and out of poetry, and WB Yeats is a favourite.

The Great Exhibition

It felt like the whole world had come to the palace… A short story by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye

London, May 1851.

“It looks like the weather is set fair,” Charlotte, Duchess of Buccleuch, said as her husband helped her into the waiting carriage.

“As long as it doesn’t rain, I’ll be happy,” Walter, the Duke of Buccleuch replied, climbing in beside her. “When we leave Buckingham Palace there will be nine royal carriages in front of us and heaven knows how many behind, with all the usual pageantry and accompanying entourage. It would put a dampener on proceedings if we arrived at the Crystal Palace soaked to the skin.”

“It’s a pity the Committee could not organise the weather on top of everything else. You have all worked so tirelessly this past year with Prince Albert, I am sure nothing will spoil the spectacle,” she said.

“His Royal Highness is a perfectionist and appreciates, as I do, the hours you have spent keeping the Queen company, my dear.”

“I am fortunate Her Majesty considers me a friend as well as a loyal servant.”

A sharp kick to the ribs made Charlotte shift on the carriage seat as the child she was expecting made its presence felt. Proof, she thought, that she and Walter did occasionally cross paths – not that she would dream of making such an intimate, indelicate observation to her husband.

It had been almost five years since her daughter Margaret made her appearance, and this would be Charlotte’s seventh confinement in 22 years of marriage. She and the Queen would now have the same number of offspring, though Her Majesty had been rather more diligent, taking just 11 years to produce her brood.

The Queen made no secret of the fact that she abhorred being in what she called an unhappy condition, and at 40, Charlotte was inclined to agree. Though by her reckoning, the child was not due for another three months, not even the patented maternity corset she wore could disguise her state.

“It’s going to be a long day for you,” the duke said, frowning.

“I won’t faint,” Charlotte said, with far more confidence than she felt. “I am expecting to be on my feet for hours, I know how much Her Majesty enjoys her pomp and pageantry.”

“There will certainly be no lack of that today,” her husband said dryly. “The Queen is determined that the world celebrates her husband’s crowning achievement in suitable style.”

“You have no need to worry, Walter, I have never let you down or embarrassed you in 22 years of marriage, and I don’t intend to start now.”

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But her husband had already turned his attention to their waiting gaggle of children, studying them with a critical eye. “William, Henry, Walter and Charlie, you will travel together

in the second carriage. Victoria and Margaret, you are to ride with us. And I hope,” he added, “that Margaret will for once follow her mother’s example and behave impeccably.”

It was just after 11 when their coach set out behind the cavalcade of state carriages on the last leg of the journey from Buckingham Palace to Hyde Park. Crowds lined the streets three and four deep, all of them cheering every passing carriage. Despite Walter’s disapproving glance, Charlotte had not the heart to intervene when Margaret, her big blue eyes alight with awe and wonder, waved enthusiastically back.

There were people from all walks of life decked out in their Sunday best. The special trains that the railway companies had laid on to ferry day-trippers to the capital must have been full to over owing. And the mood, Charlotte was very relieved to note, was festive. “It is positively a carnival atmosphere,” she said happily, “everyone smiling and laughing. I see no signs of trouble.”

“I hope you are right. The press would love to report negative headlines. They won’t let Prince Albert forget his German roots, even though the man has worked tirelessly for the last year to bring this great tribute to British ingenuity to the masses.”

“Queen Victoria is determined that today, finally, the people will take her beloved Albert into their hearts,” she said.

“Well, they certainly seem to be enthusiastic at the moment,” the duke agreed, allowing himself a small smile. “The true test of success will be in the ticket sales, but I think I can guarantee that with almost 13,000 exhibits to choose from, there will be something for everyone.”

“I want to see the alarm bed that throws you out when it’s time to get up,” Margaret chimed in.

“And I want to see the Koh-i-Noor diamond,” Victoria added.

Margaret snorted. “Who cares about a diamond, when there are stuffed elephants, and steam engines, and a collapsible piano?”

Victoria glared at her sister. “It is the biggest diamond in the world.”

Charlotte sighed. It was going to be a very long day. Four hours, perhaps five, she calculated, for the opening ceremony to take place, followed by a brief inspection of the key exhibits. She was not sure how much interest she would be able to muster for carpets and silks, porcelain and glass, electric telegraphs and Swiss knives, or even a collapsible piano, but she would have to put on a good show, for the Queen would expect an enthusiastic account from her later.

But as the Crystal Palace suddenly loomed into view, she forgot her reservations. It was a huge, glittering three-storey edifice constructed of glass surmounted by the flags from every nation that had contributed an exhibit. It was breathtaking. Even Margaret was struck temporarily dumb.

“Mr Paxton is a true visionary,” Charlotte said, finding herself on the verge of tears. “And the Prince Consort too, to have invested his faith in such a very extraordinary design.”

Their carriage slowed to a crawl and then finally to a halt at the main entrance, and the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch with their six children took their place in the procession immediately behind the royal party. “Remember now,” Charlotte cautioned her children, “we are on display as much as the exhibits. No smiles, no more waving at the crowds. Never forget who you are and what you represent.”

Ahead of them, Queen Victoria was holding the Prince of Wales by the hand. Ten-year-old Bertie was looking extremely uncomfortable, poor little mite, in his full Highland regalia. Holding Her Majesty’s other hand was Princess Victoria, dressed in white like her mother, though with a wreath of roses in her hair rather than a tiara, and as impeccably behaved as ever.

Charlotte turned back to her own children. Margaret’s face was lit up, her eyes wide with excitement. “Mama, is the whole world really here, in this big glass palace?” as, with a blare of trumpets, the royal procession got underway.

  • Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York is out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook (Mills & Boon, HarperCollins £8.99)

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