ON CHAPEL SANDS
by Laura Cumming (Chatto £16.99, 320 pp)
Chapel Sands — a wind-battered stretch of the Lincolnshire coastline, is where this memoir of family secrets both begins and ends.
It opens in the autumn of 1929 with three-year-old Betty Elston playing on the beach near her home, while her elderly mother, Veda, sits nearby. A moment’s distraction and the child in the blue dress is gone.
The good news is that little Betty is returned, unharmed, a few days later.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a shocking and upsetting account behind her disappearance. Now prepare to play detective because this is where the story — written by Betty’s own daughter, Laura Cumming — gets interesting.
To give away too much would be to spoil this compelling, beautifully written book.
Laura Cumming retraces her mother's kidnapping in a fascinating new memoir, Pictured: Betty on Chapel Sands with a mystery man
Let’s just say that the perpetrators of the kidnap are not unknown to Veda and her irascible husband, George.
And that we discover much later that little Betty’s real name is, in fact, not Betty, but Grace. And that Veda is not really her mother, but her adoptive mother. As for her father, you will have to read the book. Suffice to say that on Betty’s birth certificate, unearthed much later in 1966, the space for that name remained blank.
Fortunately, Betty later produced a daughter curious and patient enough — Cumming is The Observer’s art critic — to piece together this tangled, tantalising familial jigsaw.
Cumming has form here. She managed to make her first book, on the potentially dry subject of self-portraits, read like a historical novel.
Her second, in 2016, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit Of Velazquez, told the true whodunnit story of a missing Velazquez portrait and an obsessed 19th-century bookseller. If anyone could crack the case of what lay behind those missing few days of Betty’s childhood and turn it into readable memoir, Cumming could.
But it would be more than 55 years before Betty even knew she’d been abducted.
Cumming’s quest had begun in 1985 when, along with her mother, she’d returned to her mother’s home village of Chapel St Leonards in a bid to find her real grandmother — Betty’s birth certificate had revealed her birth mother to be a local girl.
The ageing local community refused to give up their half-century-old secrets — all except one, a former neighbour, Mrs Simpson, who spoke of the ‘terrible hullabaloo’ when Betty was stolen from the Elstons.
Percentage increase in children awaiting adoption in the UK since last year
‘This was the first we had ever heard of the kidnap,’ Cumming writes. And so she began her forensic search. There was the family album, replete with hidden clues if you had an art critic’s eye, plus Betty’s memoir of her claustrophobic childhood, written at Cumming’s request for her 21st birthday.
Paragraphs from this are judiciously scattered throughout the book, the most climactic being when 13-year-old Betty was approached by a woman on the local bus, whispering: ‘Your grandmother wants to see you’. Betty’s life ‘changed in an instant’, and George and Veda were forced to admit to the teenager that they had ‘adopted’ her aged three and weren’t her real parents. Or were they?
An unearthed ‘brutal and binding’ adoption agreement that threatened Betty’s birth mother with severe financial penalties should she ever get in touch, a pair of Australian half-sisters and revelations from great-aunt Fanny allow the author to close in on her mother’s true identity.
Chapter by chapter, Cumming slowly pieces together an authentic portrait of her ancestors, a paean dedicated lovingly to her mother.
ON CHAPEL SANDS by Laura Cumming (Chatto £16.99, 320 pp)
On Chapel Sands is a nostalgic read for the over-50s whose grandparents live on in tiny monochrome portraits surrounded by a vanished world of strict social rules and buried truths. It had me reaching for my mother’s tin box of sepia shots — something I hadn’t unearthed for years — depicting rigid hairstyles, tailored clothes and elegant ink-written messages.
At just under 300 pages, this memoir is not a long book, although you may find Cumming’s numerous art references tangential. She spends several pages comparing the dysfunctional Elstons with Degas’s famous portrait of the flawed Bellelli family, and describes at length a photograph George took of Veda in her kitchen as looking just ‘like a Vermeer’. Nice try, but I’m not sure who she’s trying to convince.
What is convincing is her cleverly constructed storytelling (‘I sieve the evidence like flour’) which keeps the pages turning.
Like all great storytellers, she saves the best line, the one that pricks the eyes, until the very last. We are back on Chapel Sands and a black and white photograph shows a smiling George holding Grace (before she became Betty), a tiny sliver of sea captured beyond the dunes.
Three simple words are scrawled above it. At first they confound, then astonish and finally they make sense of this extraordinary tale.