I have in my possession a very mysterious book. It is The House in Cornwall by Noel Streatfeild, originally published in 1940. If you haven’t read it (and it’s well worth reading), it tells the story of four children, John, Sorrell, Wish and Edward Chandler who go to stay in Cornwall with Uncle Murdock, who is their father’s half-brother. He had been involved in a fascist revolution in ‘Livia’, which deposed the royal family and installed Dr Manoff as dictator. However, there has been a counter-revolution and the odious Manoff and cruel Uncle Murdock are now living in the latter’s Cornwall mansion, with a staff of Livian servants including a chauffeur who has had his tongue cut out, apparently on Manoff’s orders, as a punishment. Once at the house, the children discover that Rudi, the young King of Livia, is being held prisoner there and that they, themselves, are to all and intents and purposes also imprisoned. After various adventures, they manage to alert the authorities who come to rescue King Rudi and all is well.
What has this got to do with Enid Blyton? Well, in the edition I have (Mayflower/Dragon 1970, reprinted 1974) the inside cover credits the copyright to her. That is strange enough, but perhaps could be dismissed as just a typesetter’s error since Blyton’s work was published under the same imprint. Far more peculiar is the back cover blurb, which describes how the children have to stay not with Uncle Murdock but with Uncle Quentin! How could such an error have been made? Not once but twice Uncle Quentin’s name appears on the back cover and it would seem truly bizarre that someone could have written a text which in all other respects relates to Streatfeild’s book but inadvertently mentions a character in another book by another author*. I am not the first person to notice it – there is a discussion on the Enid Blyton Society Forum of just this, where the consensus of opinion is that it is an inexplicable mistake.
But suppose it is not a mistake? Could it be that the writer of the cover blurb knew something and tried, desperately, to alert the world to it? It would be a risky business, so the truth could only be hinted at: Uncle Murdock and Uncle Quentin are one and the same! If this seems unlikely, remember that there is something jolly queer about the family names in the Famous Five. We are told that Kirrin is the ancestral home of Aunt Fanny, Uncle Quentin’s wife, but if that is so then why do both George and her cousins have the surname Kirrin which would have been Aunt Fanny’s maiden name? Surely George would have had Uncle Quentin’s surname, as would Julian, Dick and Anne, since Uncle Quentin is described as their father’s brother. And why at one point are the children called Barnard? Again, this issue has been discussed by Blytonites who advance various extraordinary theories about cousins marrying, widows re-marrying and so on. More likely, Uncle Quentin took on his wife’s maiden name in order to lead his double life, which raises the worrying question of how much Aunt Fanny knew about what her husband was up to.
We may never know the full truth, but we can certainly see that Uncle Quentin has form in terms of his name, so why should we be surprised if he used ‘Murdock Chandler’ as an alias? Is it coincidence that Uncle Murdock is arrested in Streatfeild’s 1940 book and Uncle Quentin’s first appearance is in Blyton’s 1942 book? Did he manage to escape prison and return under his Quentin identity? Then again, the meaning of ‘Quentin’ is ‘the fifth one’. Perhaps he cheekily adopted it because he had numerous aliases of which Uncle Quentin was the fifth (for there is nothing to say that either Quentin Kirrin or Murdock Chandler was his real name). And the origin of the name Kirrin is ‘dark man’ which hints at some hidden secret. So Quentin Kirrin means ‘the fifth dark man’. Significantly, the identity of the Fifth Man of the infamous Cambridge Soviet spy ring has never been definitively established. Uncle Quentin, perhaps? With Cambridge being the leading scientific university, it is highly likely that that was where so brilliant a scientist as Uncle Quentin was educated. Things are beginning to fall into place.
Then, of course, Kirrin is generally believed to be in Cornwall as is the house in … Cornwall. It wouldn’t be hard for Uncle Quentin to lead a double life, he would just have to nip to the next cove and no one would be the wiser, especially as any slip ups could be put down to his so-called ‘absent mindedness’, which looks more and more to have been a calculated ruse. After all, we know that he is a smooth operator, capable of considerable charm when he wants to exert it as has been discussed on this blog so he might easily be able to fool people. Yet the mask often slips and he is also known for his bad temper. Uncle Murdock, too, is genial on the surface but quick to anger. Another coincidence? I don’t think so.
What’s more, we are frequently told that Uncle Quentin is engaged in top secret work for the government, but, significantly, we are never told which government. Perhaps it is the Livian government? It is also noteworthy that he is remarkably careless about protecting his secret work, which seems to get stolen alarmingly often, so perhaps he is ostensibly working for the British government but conspiring in the theft of his work … by Livian agents. Don’t forget that in Five Go Adventuring Again it is Uncle Quentin who appoints Mr Roland as a personal tutor, facilitating his theft of the secret weapon experiments until the Five expose him. Who insists that Timmy be banned from the house, giving Mr Roland free rein? Uncle Quentin. For that matter, what is Uncle Quentin really up to all alone on the island in Five on Kirrin Island Again? It seems highly implausible that it was to undertake his secret experiments and much more likely that he was trying, yet again, to pass on information to his Livian paymasters. Who shuts Timmy up in the dungeons rather than unleashing him on the baddies? Yes, Uncle Quentin again. There’s a pattern here that simply can’t be ignored.
At the very least, then, there are questions to be asked about Uncle Quentin and on that cover of The House in Cornwall we have the beginnings of an answer. Of course it is easy just to say that there was an ‘error’ in the cover blurb. How convenient. How suspiciously convenient. I suggest that it was not an error at all. And the fact that it appears in the reprint of the edition re-enforces that: wouldn’t so flagrant an error have been corrected after four years? No, someone was trying to tell us something about Uncle Quentin and thanks to their bravery we can now at long last speak openly about Uncle Quentin’s double life as Uncle Murdock, the henchman of Livian fascism.
*Joking aside, this still seems to me an extraordinary thing to have happened.