When she was three years old, in 1929, a young girl was kidnapped from a beach in Lincolnshire, on the eastern coast of England. She was returned to her family after those five days, and didn’t even learn that this had happened to her until much later in her life. She was the artist Betty Elston, and her daughter, author and art critic Laura Cumming, investigated the story further, opening up a trove of buried family secrets — a looming central one, in particular. The kidnapping wasn’t a random incident or potential crime thwarted, rather an extension of a long tamped-down family drama that would remain a secret for decades.
One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St. Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus was my mother kidnapped.
Cumming begins sifting through family memorabilia and telling stories of what she knew and learns about her relatives, gathering tidbits and interpreting them as she goes along. It was known, and we quickly learn, that Betty was adopted, and this is part of unraveling the mystery, but there’s more to it.
As she becomes more immersed in the mystery, Cumming sees suspicion everywhere in old family items. Even the way she analyzes photographs, one of her main investigative tools for looking back through the years, becomes steeped in an almost paranoid suspicion. As she becomes more familiar with the historical evidence and the lives of the people at the center of this mystery, she starts to look beyond the immediate items in front of her and discern bits of this hidden history everywhere.
It was for a long time my only picture of events, constructed from clues, and reinforced by emotion and instinct, until searching made a mockery of each certainty. Life reproves the imagination: look closer.
What I find most unique is Cumming’s incorporation of art throughout the storytelling. It elevates what could be a straightforward or soap operatic tale of family drama, underscoring her goal of focusing closer, of striving to look and really see. It was an unexpected but rich touch, and every passage where Cumming referenced a painting or element of art history was excellent. She’s the art critic for the Observer, so her way of talking about art and weaving it into bigger stories is well polished.
It was a bit dry elsewhere, and often didn’t feel much different from other family history-type stories that don’t have a tantalizing mystery and scandal at their core. There’s a calmness to this dug-up history that isn’t particularly nefarious — it’s a scandal, but not an uncommon one. Maybe that’s why it felt less than thrilling. The tone is extremely measured, but the writing can be a bit florid. Although, especially when Cumming focuses on her mother now and as she’s known her throughout her life, the dramatic touch does seem appropriate.
Memories calcify over the years; everything grows more extreme — the brightness incandescent, the darkness infinitely worse.
Betty was greatly affected by the secrets in her past, in her very existence, and the events that happened later, including when a woman claiming to be her grandmother approached her when she was 13. She suffered a lot, not only from her difficult childhood but from the personalities and ways of her adopted parents, especially her father, George. He was a harsh, cold person, and she seems to have been shaped by this behavior when, Cumming discovers, her life could have — should have — gone very differently.
It pierces me to think what was taken from my mother. All the possibilities of a large and bustling family. She was a merry child then; but she became an anxious woman. The celebratory in her, strong as it is, lives in a forest of fears.
These people who invented us — who were they? In my own case, I have no doubt. For my mother, the identification was impossible.
Despite this darkness of learned anxieties, Betty developed a gift of “transforming the everyday that has enriched my whole life,” Cumming writes, and it’s clear her love of art inspired her daughter’s path too. Although this family story and mystery are, ultimately, less intriguing than the author’s passionate detective work in action, what she accomplished was an extraordinary gift for her mother. We get to hear Betty’s own words too, and her writings, and it’s clear that understanding something about herself and where she came from was deeply meaningful for her.
A decent mystery, woven through with a unique art historical perspective, but not always engaging reading. 3/5
Five Days Gone:
The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child
by Laura Cumming
published August 27, 2019 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.