‘No one can break the York family’: Sarah Ferguson on Andrew, Diana and Prince Harry, and her new Mills & Boon whodunit
Hello, do you like the background? Is it too bright, or not bright enough?” Sarah, the Duchess of York asks excitably. “Are you happy with the windows, or do you want me to close the curtains?” The duchess, who was affectionately nicknamed Fergie when she married into the royal family in 1986, is sitting in the study at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, her ex-husband Prince Andrew’s residence. It’s a home she has shared with the Duke of York on and off for many years, despite the fact they separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, but it’s a sprawling pad that she clearly doesn’t call home sweet home, any more than she does the Mayfair mews she bought last year. For years now, she has lived a peripatetic, transatlantic life between the US and the UK.
“I’m very lucky to be a guest here at Royal Lodge,” the 63-year-old says in a disarming fashion. She sips on a cup of tea from a Wedgwood china cup, showing me the matching teapot, decorated with pink peonies, given to her by her daughters, the Princesses Beatrice, 34, and Eugenie, 33. Dressed in an emerald-green top, with her trademark flaming red hair toned down to more glossy hues of auburn, the duchess is just as fun and vivacious as she was in the 1980s, when the former chalet girl became a royal wife and won headlines with her oversized hair bows and outlandish bold outfits.
But these days she’s channelling a far more serious side. The profound inner change she’s experienced over the years is down to “addressing lots of issues”. “People believe obstacles stand in the way but… they are the way. It’s how you climb them,” she tells me. She admits to feeling liberated and becoming her “authentic self” – something that is partly down to her unlikely new career as a romantic novelist.
We’re chatting on Zoom about her latest Mills & Boon book, A Most Intriguing Lady. The duchess is now a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic, and copies of her new book, out now, are positioned strategically in view. Also on show, rather embarrassingly, is my red face: I have just had a Morpheus8 non-invasive facelift for a piece I’m writing.
“Is it good? Will you let me know, Charlotte?” she says eagerly, peering at my face in her forthright manner. Her own face looks plumped up and smooth – it has been visibly more youthful since 2019. She’s been very open in the past about having “tweakments” including Botox, a thread lift (temporary sutures to pull up sagging skin), organic fillers (injected under the skin), a laser facelift and vitamin injections in her face.
“My mother [Susan Barrantes] never did do anything before she died. And she was a very handsome woman. And I have got to 63 and four people have come up to me and said, ‘It’s time for a facelift’,” she says about the pressure for older women to look fresh-faced and go under the knife.
“And it really reminds me of when I was much younger. I think of Nancy Reagan… I don’t know if she had one or not… but all those sorts of times, when the facelifts were very like that…” – she pulls her face back into a slightly mad, stretched-back look. “But nowadays with… all these different things, maybe there’s a new way.” She considers for a moment. “And also my father [Major Ronald Ferguson] had cracks in his mouth going down that way,” she says, pointing at her mouth. “So, I’m thinking maybe I need to go get this sorted out.”
The duchess has just returned from her US book tour, where she’s been spreading positivity about the British royal family. In TV interviews, we’ve heard her say how proud Princess Diana would be of her sons Prince William and Prince Harry and her grandchildren; how she and Diana would be having a “granny-off”; how Meghan Markle gives Harry “love he’s never felt before”. She’s been advocating the teaching of kindness in schools, and declaring that forgiveness is the key to healing the explosive rift in the royal family that emerged after Megxit and was amplified by the publication of Harry’s memoir, Spare, earlier this year.
Given her own difficult experiences, I ask her if she can relate to Harry and Meghan’s struggles with the press. “I married into the royal family in 1986 and that was an immense honour but it also came with pressures of being in the public eye. I struggled with that at times, and I think social media probably makes it even more difficult today.” Clearly, she feels for Harry, adding: “I don’t believe in judging anyone, and I would just ask for a little more kindness.”
But ask her whether she agrees with Harry that the royal model for spares needs to be changed, and she says she needs to research spares throughout history before she can answer. Some of my questions are swerved like a skilled politician. Unlike Harry and Meghan, though, who revealed last month that their children have prince and princess titles, she says she never questioned whether her daughters should have princess titles.
“I didn’t think about it, then. And I don’t think about it now,” she says, widening eyes made bigger by a hint of black eyeliner. “I believe that the title doesn’t make you the person you are. I believe that true humility comes from your heart.”
With the ongoing issue with William and Harry, she doesn’t know how King Charles is coping as a parent. “I don’t know how he’s managing. I really don’t,” she says, while making it clear she wants to support and love the new monarch. “We used to go skiing together,” she says, lighting up. “And I honestly have no idea how he’s managing with the amount of paperwork and all the overwhelming things he must have to deal with.”
She’s had her own family crisis, as the mother to daughters who have seen their father, the Duke of York, engulfed in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and eviscerated by just about everyone. “The three of us have helped their father through a very tricky time. And don’t forget also that his mum was amazing,” she says.
“The Queen and I, when she was alive, we both bookended him to help him through this. So, we’re a very strong family unit. No one can break the York family.”
It’s no wonder that writing historical romances is a much-needed form of escapism for her. This is the second time she has paired up with publisher Mills & Boon’s Marguerite Kaye – to “collabo-write”, as she calls it – on her new book, following her bestselling 2021 debut romantic novel, Her Heart for a Compass.
Her latest book, A Most Intriguing Lady, is a historical romance whodunit about Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, a real-life Victorian ancestor of the duchess and the younger sister of the red-haired protagonist of her first novel. Once again, the novel’s central character is a carbon copy of the author, and the narrative of Lady Mary incorporates research into the duchess’s family – but the story is fictional.
“I have an absolutely extraordinary curiosity for life like Lady Mary. That’s why she is a sleuth of society crimes,” the duchess says of her new heroine, who moonlights as a detective with Colonel Trefusis, aka Tre. Naturally, they fall in love.
In an interview with Town & Country magazine, the duchess teased that her style of Mills & Boon writing “is going to make Fifty Shades of Grey just a walk in the park”. But while the book is full of clandestine meetings, it’s not X-rated. In one chapter, she writes: “He smoothed his hand over her waist, upwards to the curve of her breast, frustrated by her layers of clothing, aroused all the same by the way she shuddered in response.” The lovers then have a frank chat about contraception. “There is no sure thing as risk-free lovemaking,” Tre advises her. “We are playing with fire and I don’t want you to get burned.”
The duchess clearly has enormous fun writing them. “I kept saying to Marguerite, ‘No, no, Lady Mary must have satin red lingerie’,” she laughs naughtily. “So am I living vicariously through Lady Mary? Of course. Because it’s fabulous. It’s romantic. It’s sexy. It’s sassy. It’s saucy. I love it.”