Untangling a Family Mystery

This is how it began, and how it would end, on the long pale strand of a Lincolnshire beach in the last hour of sun, the daylight moon small as a kite in the sky. Far below, a child of three was playing by herself with a new tin spade. It was still strangely warm in that autumn of 1929, and she had taken off her plimsolls to feel the day’s heat lingering in the sand beneath her feet. Short fair hair, no coat, blue eyes and dress to match: that was the description later given to the police.

The toddler wandered a short distance away. Her mother had a moment of inattention. The child disappeared, apparently kidnapped. Her parents, Veda and George Elston, were frantic and the local police could find out nothing; no one in the hamlet of Chapel St. Leonard had seen, or knew, anything. A few days later, the toddler was found in a neighbouring village, perfectly happy and wearing a nice new red dress.

The child’s name is Betty Elston. She would grow up with no memory of being kidnapped and, in fact, only learned that it happened in middle age. But that’s only one detail of a convoluted story. Betty wasn’t her birth name. She had been previously named Grace, before she was adopted by the Elstons. Her father, George Elston, was domineering and rarely showed affection; her mother was docile; Betty’s life was tightly controlled to the point that she had few friends and was removed from high school despite her aptitude, especially for art. When she finally escaped and went to art college, she would so hate her given name that she would call herself Elizabeth and so hate her father she didn’t attend his funeral. She became an artist, married, and had children. Her childhood was a painful mystery she preferred to ignore.

Her daughter, Laura Cumming, was understandably curious and, when she was 21, her mother presented her with a short memoir she had written of her teenage years. In it, she wrote: Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiousity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.

Years later, Cumming, the respected art critic for The Observer in London, decided to decode the family history. The book is partly a memoir of her mother’s life, partly a detective story that is solved, in part, through Cumming’s strength: images. Faded old snapshots in family albums provided clues and there are fascinating references to painters like Seurat, Degas, Turner, and most significantly, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterpiece, Fall of Icarus, in which people in a coastal village go about their business unaware, or uncaring, that Icarus is drowning.

For as Cumming returned to the village — with her mother and without — and talked to people there, she realized everyone knew what happened, knew at the time, but will say nothing even though the principles involved are all dead. Cumming finds out who kidnapped her mother, and provides interesting evidence that the hated father was not exactly as he seemed. It’s a journey into an insular, claustrophobic world, and an examination of identity, deception, silence, secrecy, and a daughter’s love for her mother.

Fall of Icarus