As we wait with bated breath for Prince Harry’s memoirs, we might take a moment to consider the royal adverbs. In the days of Lilibet I, the favourites were, in no particular order, ‘jollily’, ‘spiffingly’, ‘thrillingly’ and ‘boringly’. It’s not yet clear how involved Lilibet II will be in palace matters but, under the influence of her mother and her yoga instructor, the preferred adverbs are likely to be ‘honestly’, ‘amazingly’, ‘insanely’ and ‘unbelievably’. Harry is deep in the sycamores of Montecito with his ghostwriter, grassing on his grandma, and they’re keeping it tight, but I can tell you via ‘industry sources’ (i.e. spiteful courtiers) that the prince is under a certain amount of local pressure to call the book ‘My Truth and Your Lies’. There won’t be a Nazi armband in sight.
Royal writing has a long and hazardous history. In the days of ‘spiffingly’, Marion Crawford, for seventeen years governess to the queen and her sister, caused a hullabaloo when she wrote an account of her time in the number one household. It was all party frocks and hot milk, but you’d have thought, from the royal reaction, that she’d set fire to Windsor Castle (‘People in positions of confidence with us must be utterly oyster,’ the then queen wrote to her). Crawfie was cast out of the femly. Her book does reveal a shocking amount about the girls’ reading habits: ‘There was in the bookshelves a complete set of Beatrix Potter’s books. One in Welsh!’ J.M. Barrie, something of an expert on children who never grow up, came to read to them at Glamis. Crawfie was the first of the Windsor grasses – in her native Kilmarnock she would have been called a ‘clype’, a tittle-tattle – but bitter words against the crown tend to come from the royals themselves, not their servants.
James VI and I was a decent poet, wrote a dissertation on demonology and necromancy, two treatises on kingship and government, and could impersonate the spring song of birds (‘And sing with us, Away, Winter away!/Cum, Somer, cum, the suete sesoùn and sonne!’). Meghan Markle, an actress down to her opalescent toenails, can do all this stuff standing on her head, especially the speaking with the dead bit. She has an instinct for posterity (all actors do) and a business-like way of asserting herself. All human doubts, all supernatural doubts too, can be solved by a person with the right brand of energy.
The Bench begins with a ginger man sitting on a bench. He has a baby in his arms and is accompanied by two dogs. There is a tree. I don’t think it’s a sycamore, but the general vibe is, like, daylight and daisies and bluebells. The bench looks out on a street of houses with swing-seats and cats on porches. ‘This is your bench,’ the duchess writes, ‘where you’ll witness great joy’ (I think she means ‘experience’, not ‘witness’). On the next page there’s a different bench (different is good!), where another man, a person of colour, is asleep with a small boy on his chest. ‘See the growth of our boy,’ the surtitle says, although, being asleep, the man isn’t really seeing that much, but perhaps he is feeling joy. Next page. There’s a dad in a pink tutu with a boy who is wearing the same outfit, but a bit more committedly. ‘You’ll love him. You’ll listen. You’ll be his supporter,’ the words say. Then it all goes a bit Gertrude Stein. There’s a bench in a city next to another tree. ‘You’ll sit on this bench. As his giving tree.’ I’m not sure what this means, and I’ve read Finnegans Wake. The book gestures to heartbrokenness, shows children in tears, tells the reader (who could never be an actual child) that adults must always speak the words ‘I love you.’ At this point, you start looking to see how many pages are left. A woman is crying at a window (‘tears of great joy’). The book seems genuinely to run out of things to say. There is no story. Only feeling. The same feeling. It ends with a few more dogs and sobbing.
How odd, to refer again and again to joy, but not to instil any. Readers of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (R.I.P. Eric Carle) or I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato are used to the small wonders of the children’s story. A good children’s writer makes children feel things without ever quite talking about feelings. They teach children how to read the world for signals of what is important and strange and valuable, but it never feels like a lesson and it always feels like something only children might really understand. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (presumably the title helps sales) has written a children’s book which is not for children at all, and possibly not for anyone. She thinks love is something you tell children about, or sell to them, rather than simply give.
Lilibet II’s great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon could get very caught up in the swooshiness of poetry. She loved going fishing with Ted Hughes. In the long boring afternoons in the Highlands, the hours between kippers and drinkies, poor Ted would take her down to the river and start Yorkshiring on about the trees. One comes away from William Shawcross’s biography of Bowes-Lyon (which refers to letters in which she and Hughes gave each other pet names) with the distinct impression that they had a hidden affair, never entirely acknowledged and certainly never consummated, but definitely there. The story of the poet laureate and the royal widow was too good and too impossible, and Hughes was too much the dark gentleman ever to speak of it, but it bears a resemblance to that of Queen Victoria and John Brown, her favourite ghillie. Barbara Cartland, of course, could have made something of it. She was very pre-Oprah, and pre-Diana (her step-granddaughter), in believing it quite jolly for gels to be independent and bolters and all that, so long as they submitted in the end to the natural wisdom of a powerful man. To Cartland, girls like Di were spirited but silly: female sainthood, in her fluffy mind, was made of something else. It follows that she added copiously to the royal adverbs. I haven’t read all 723 of her novels, but she definitely tried out ‘plungingly’, ‘firmly’, ‘hotly’ and – heaven preserve us – ‘pinkly’.
When the nice person at HarperCollins tried to send me Sarah Ferguson’s novel as a PDF, she warned that it might go straight to junk. I’m not sure if that’s reverse publicity-think, but, in the end, even my junk wouldn’t take it. I eventually scored a hard copy and went to sit down with it in Kensington Palace Gardens, close to the statue of Peter Pan and not far from the Sunken Garden and the new monument to Diana, over which her sons recently agreed a brief ceasefire. Diana was pretty but the statue is ugly, fully humanitarian but not really human. ‘You seem quite content,’ a passing tourist said to me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Just sitting here, witnessing great joy.’
Titian-haired Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott is a bit of a one. A short, sharp Scot, she is the second daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, ‘one of the most eminent peers in the land’, and his duchess, the ‘daughter of the Second Marquess of Bath, and former Mistress of the Queen’s Robes’. When first we meet Lady M, she is sulking in Montague House, which overlooks the Thames. It is 19 July 1865 and, one of the year’s most notable debutantes, she is being forced to marry – wait for it – a bore, Lord Rufus Ponsonby, who is not just an earl but ‘an earl of the realm’. After that we get a bit of backstory, all about Lady Margaret being best pals with Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter and an abject little snob, plus several pages about how she wants to be a free spirit. I know this is 1865, and I know the author is 61, but this interlude allows some millennial light to seep in: Lady Margaret is ‘insecure’, ‘anxious’, that sort of thing. The terrible Ponsonby is haughty and has an aquiline nose, obvs, and he also has a cough, less obvs, which comes out annoyingly before everything he says – and what he says is never very intelligent. He’s ‘anxious’, too, wishing to ‘confirm his place within the prestigious firmament of the Buccleuch dynasty’. All the same, we are led to understand by the unblushing debutante that most people ‘would give their eye teeth for the opportunity I am being given’. But she’s not just toff-fodder, okay? ‘No one seems to care that underneath I’m an actual person.’
But I do, Lady Margaret. I care. Let’s not waste time over the fact that anxiety didn’t really exist in 1865, not like that, nor did being an ‘actual person’, which was invented a fortnight ago last Tuesday. The fact is that Lady M is hurting and what is this novel going to do about it? Fortunately, after running away for an evening and hanging around outside Charing Cross Station, she meets another Scot, legless, of course (a tradition in London railway stations). But Fraser Scott is a good egg and he gives Lady M sound advice about following her dreams. He might be poor and bedraggled and have no legs, but he can spot a bounder.
‘You canny abide him, I’m guessing. Am I right?’
She shuddered. ‘That is it in a nutshell. I cannot abide him at all, though I promise you, I’ve tried.’
She hasn’t tried, but we’re in a hurry. Another Scotsman comes to fetch her. He’s called Donald Cameron of Lochiel, and he takes her home to her disappointed daddy. The next minute she’s whisked off to Scotland, where she receives a letter from her chum Princess Louise. ‘I told you, M, the price of fame is relentless scrutiny.’ This being a book by Sarah Ferguson, the press, no matter the era, comes in for a counter-bashing, and people who stand up to them, or to tradition, are immediately praised for their ‘courage’. Poor brave Lady Margaret is told off by everybody she ever had the misfortune to think of as a friend. They all want to remind her of the conventions and rules ‘which govern good society’.
She is banished to the Palace of Dalkeith, which she occupies like the Count of Monte Cristo. ‘Walking dogs and riding horses did not amount to a life lived’ (try telling that to Lilibet I). What a courageous and independent girl ‘would love’ to do, above all, is to serve, but that is impossible for ‘a mere female’. So she returns to London, faces the bad press again, and goes about her ‘duty’ like someone sleepwalking towards the guillotine. Her heart is insubordinate, but for now her mind is made up: she will do her duty, which turns out to be something charitable, because that’s what posh people do when they attempt self-sacrifice. She is soon in the stews of Lambeth, writing and reading stories to poor children. We can only hope they are better than the Duchess of Sussex’s effort – or, indeed, Budgie the Little Helicopter, Fergie’s previous bid for literary fame. Naturally, Lady Margaret totally ‘finds’ herself in the slums, much as Sarah found herself – her inner, truer self – working for charities after she offered a tabloid reporter access to Prince Andrew for $500,000.
Titian-haired Sarah is never far away from Lady Margaret. They are fellow sufferers, bold women who resist the roles thrust on them, and there is no end of vanity in the book’s romanticism, a wish to settle scores, to provide a high-minded alibi for greed and avarice. After a while, you get tired of Lady Margaret and her delusional presentation of her ‘courage’. She wants what everybody else wants, only she wants more of it, feels entitled to have it, and will do anything to get it, and to show you that she was no ‘mere woman’ all along. To write a book for money is a forgivable exercise – Fergie, from a certain viewpoint, has never done anything in her life that wasn’t for money – but the chief horror of her book is the way she wishes, at every turn, to make this banal roman à clef an advertisement for her secret virtue. If her former husband, the Duke of York, with whom she still lives and whom she defends, had not been accused of repeatedly abusing a 17-year-old girl, one might find her protestations of decency hilarious. ‘Like me, you are a maverick,’ one character says of the Fergie-alike, ‘though being a female, you are forced to disguise it’; ‘Ah, Margaret, you have a generous soul,’ he says later. Bad novelists are better than good novelists at paying themselves compliments in their stories, and Ferguson, via her ghostwriter, would never put her name to anything that didn’t appear to provide as much moral cachet as cash.
Thus infected, the whole thing grows unfunny. The romance in the novel has a bogus look from the start: the first loved one is a priest, Father Sebastian Beckwith, a do-gooder who can’t resist Margaret, not just for her red hair but for her amazing decency (pass the vom bag). After she takes up a position at the mission, I knew, in my sad, exhausted bones, that the missionary position must closely follow. Enter Randolph. ‘His forearms were faintly tanned and surprisingly sinewy. The neckline of the suit had stretched, exposing his throat and a smattering of dark hair on his chest. The wet fabric clung to his lean body, making her acutely aware of him not as a friend but as a man.’ By this point I was reading the book with one eye shut. Please spare me, I thought. I’ve been a good and diligent reviewer: please spare me the final ecstasies. But no, as all angelic people must in the end come to God, all delusional projections in romantic novels must end in the arms of a dutiful man, who sees you for what you truly are – a goddess of infinite virtue. This man is your reward. His name is Donald. He makes you go all tingly. He has a gleaming buckle on his belt and his kilt is tightly pleated.