Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2015

The Unknown Bridesmaid, by Margaret Forster

The Unknown BridesmaidThe Unknown Bridesmaid is Margaret Forster’s 26th novel, the most famous of which is Georgy Girl (1965).  I’ve read seven of these, and enjoyed them all, so I pounced when I saw this one at the library, even though I have two of hers on the TBR, including her award-winning biography of Daphne du Maurier.  Well, strike while the iron is hot, eh?

It’s an intense, claustrophobic novel, centred on Julia, the unknown bridesmaid of the title when she was a little girl, and a child psychologist now.  Brought up by her strict, embittered single mother and excluded from matters deemed not suitable for children,  she has a childhood full of guilt and anxiety.  The wedding at which she was bridesmaid was a brief moment of colour and sunshine in a grey and gloomy life, and it is after that wedding that things that are not really her fault start to go badly wrong.

Julia’s story (told in the third person but always from her point-of-view) is interspersed with vignettes from her work with disturbed children.  With some of these children, the problem is really the mother, not the child.  There are a couple of distant or vague fathers, but it is mostly the mothers.  Mothers with unrealistic expectations, mothers with no respect for a girl’s need for privacy, mothers demanding gratitude, mothers who want their children to be what they are not.  Mothers withholding intimacy.  Unloving mothers.  And this is the problem with the other children too, except that their behaviours have escalated into criminal behaviours like shoplifting or violence against other children.

As the novel progresses, the calm, reasonable, empathetic child psychologist is revealed not only as a wary, guilt-ridden child herself, but also as quite malevolent.  Some of the things she does are rather alarming.  As an adult working with disturbed children, she knows that some of these actions are not quite within the normal range of childish naughtiness or spite, and her habit of justifying and excusing herself is at war with her need for redemption.

Elsa, the small daughter of a cousin who fosters teenage Julia, is a particular thorn in her side.

In the back of her mind there had been a plan, or if not a plan then an urge to make Elsa suffer for being such a pain.  It wasn’t pleasant to think about it, so Julia tried to shake it off, but this thin smear of nastiness lingered.  Elsa meanwhile was wandering around the boat looking in at the windows and shouting she could see a cake, a chocolate cake and two plates.  Smartly, Julia dragged her away.  ‘Time to get off,’ she said, ‘they’ll be coming back soon,’ and she led the way back to the point where they’d climbed onto the boat.  She went first, finding it much harder to clamber onto the bank than it had been to get onto the boat, and then she turned to help Elsa.  But jumping was no good here.  She needed to lift Elsa, but she couldn’t do it.  Elsa pulled and Julia was going to fall back on the deck, so she let Elsa go.  Then she stood up.  Elsa’s now tearful face stared up at her imploringly.  ‘Sorry, Elsa,’ Julia said, ‘you’ll have to stay there till the owner comes back,’ and she began to walk away, the rising tone of Elsa’s screams quite alarming to hear.

She only walked a couple of yards.  She never had any intention of abandoning Elsa, of course she didn’t.  But in that short fragment of time she felt an intense excitement which immediately made her feel shaky and sick.  Quickly she turned back… (p. 156)

Julia finds a way of getting Elsa off the boat, and comforts her, but Elsa has nightmares afterwards and Julia lies to cover up their ‘adventure’.  Unburdening herself to her one-and-only school-friend Caroline the next day draws an unexpected response: Caroline suggests that she should keep away from Elsa because she seems to like hurting the kid.  Julia backs off from friendship with Caroline, and by the time she is in her forties, she is withholding intimacy herself, in all her relationships.

Repressed emotion is a turbulent undercurrent throughout the novel.  The reader sees things only from Julia’s point-of-view, but soon learns to be suspicious of it.

Splendid reading!

Author: Margaret Forster
Title: The Unknown Bridesmaid
Publisher: ISIS Large Print, 2013
ISBN: 9780753192139
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: The Unknown Bridesmaid


  1. I haven’t read a Margaret Forster for years Lisa so have made a note of this one. Kate xx


    • I know what you mean: I used to see her books regularly in bookshops but recently they just haven’t been in stock. I wonder why?


  2. I’ve never read any of her books … clearly I need to find time some time to do so.


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