The Actor, the Author, and the Real ‘Father Brown’

The priest who was the inspiration for Chesterton’s great detective also played a central role in the conversion of Chesterton and many others

Crime fiction fans are well aware of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and his place in the Pantheon of great detectives. Nevertheless, in contrast with the seemingly endless speculation as to the ‘real Sherlock Holmes’, there has been little such debate about the origin of the priest sleuth. However, a recent book, The Elusive Father Brown (Gracewing, 2010), by Laura Smith, goes some way to rectifying this, detailing as it does the life of the cleric who formed the basis upon which Chesterton’s characterization was based, and who played a part in at least two very public conversions.

But, before the denouement, as in the best detective yarns, let’s recap what clues there may be within the Father Brown stories. On reflection, it is easier to say what we don’t have because when you join up any clues found therein they lead precisely to nowhere. Whereas Conan Doyle left bits and pieces to make up the history and character of his hero, Chesterton did no such thing. In fact one could say that H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man comes to mind more than the Great Detective when considering Fr. Brown. And yet there are clues, but, as in all the best detective fiction, you have to read the text closely to discover them.

What so we know? Fr. Brown is English, from rural Essex. One suspects that this region, known for a particularly flat landscape, was deliberately chosen for someone as self-effacing as he is non-descript, remembered more for his unruly umbrella than his face. In each story he is far from being the center of attention—not to begin with anyway—but for all his lack of ‘presence’ there is a curious air about him. Interestingly, this appears to have nothing to do with the supernatural per se as his powers of deduction are always purely logical, even when others have jumped to conclusions that are not of this world. His powers of observation are second to none; he misses nothing, especially when something is ever so slightly amiss, and it is this that often leads to the culprit being discovered.

Nevertheless, there is little if anything of physical description given to the character: ‘he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea.’ That’s little help if one is waiting at a London train station to meet this priest—but we would meet him nonetheless, and the clue is in that last word: priest. He is undoubtedly that; his manner, his movements, and his speech all betray his vocation. Take, for instance, the ending of “The Hammer of God”. It is the solving of a crime and the unveiling of a murderer, but also, paradoxically, and, in the end more importantly, the saving of a soul. Rest assured no one suspects Fr. Brownof being anything other than a priest.

Perhaps that is because the character was modeled upon a real priest Chesterton had met in 1903. That priest’s name was John O’Connor, and he was an English parish priest originally from Clonmel in Ireland. His family were from the then prosperous middle class and so he was duly sent, after his initial schooling, to Douai Abbey on the Continent where his education continued. It was to end in Rome in March 1895, when, aged 24, he completed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained.

What happens subsequently has certain similarities with the fictional Fr. Brown. Both men are incredibly mobile, geographically and socially, moving across early 20th-century Britain at a pace, shifting between place and social groups with an ease that always becomes the best priests. In addition, they have ‘odd’ friends, from very different walks of life. In O’Connor’s case it was writers and artists as well as those from the professions and local industrialists. In addition, this priest had an excellent knowledge of art and was a frequent buyer of surprising works. Surprising only in the sense of the quality of artwork found in his possession when he died in 1953. In the inventory of these works names such as Turner, Constable, Reynolds, and even the likes of Brueghel and Piero Della Francesco were all present, so much so that having such an art collection, today at least, seems in itself a mystery.

Needless to say, the two priests were both men of acute observation, as much of the human condition as the incidentals that litter each day. Both are—and here is the most important nexus—men who had been formed, or ‘sharpened’ if you like, by being priests. That calling had given them an insight into the workings of men’s hearts as well as their minds. Of course, as Chesterton had observed, it was the hours spent in the confessional that had given O’Connor his deep insight into the darker motivations of human behavior, something the author had in turn passed on to his fictional creation.

It was this understanding of the priest as confessor that gave Chesterton the inspiration in the first place for his priest detective. Cannily, the author recognised that the perceived ‘innocence’ of such clergy was often in direct contrast to how much evil they had been exposed to in the veiled darkness of the confessional box. Again and again in the Father Brown tales this was to be a plot device deployed to devastating effect against the guilty, who had invariably underestimated, over-looked, or dismissed the self-effacing Catholic priest, and so were caught out. (It is a device employed decades later by another fictional detective, one employed by the Los Angeles Police Department, Lieutenant Columbo.) It was not then, however, the norm in detective fiction. In contrast, luminaries such as Holmes and later Hercule Poirot were men who could never be underestimated. By the end, both Holmes and Poirot came to weary their creators, not least, one suspects, because of having to spend so much time with such colossal egos.

The same could hardly be said for Chesterton and Fr. Brown. Furthermore, some take the view that Chesterton’s creation was, and is, a better detective than even the Great Detective. The priest detective stories have puzzles and plot much more complex than the heavily formulaic ones churned out by Conan Doyle. And it is stating the obvious to note that Chesterton was a better writer than his Scottish contemporary, true not only in the construction of his detective stories—try “The Sign of the Broken Sword”, for example—but, also in regard to the characters that inhabit them, many of whom are more keenly observed than some of the more interchangeable villains found in the Holmes Canon.

Monsignor O’Connor, as he was to become, unlike his fictional alter ego, was very much a priest with a parish and one he was to remain attached to for most of his priestly ministry. Although unmistakeably an Irish man, in accent and manner, he was to live the majority of his life in Yorkshire, more precisely Bradford. In that city he was to gain the status of a local celebrity. He seems to have known the great and the good—Catholic or not—while never neglecting his own flock to whom he was very much an old-fashioned parish priest. He was familiar with the social and political currents that played out around this West Yorkshire municipality as much as they did other British cities. Whereas, at times, Fr. Brown appears ‘other worldly’, this could never have been said of Mgr. O’Connor who was in the thick of things at all times.

In fact, his reach was well beyond the city limits of Bradford, then a place known for heavy industry rather than culture. It was through his influence that all sorts of contemporary cultural figures were to descend upon it, writers like Chesterton and Belloc, and artists such as David Jones and Eric Gill. They came hardly knowing the priest, only, in some instances, to leave as friends and, for some, more deeply Catholic. In Chesterton’s case, he began writing Fr. Brown stories as Anglican only to end those adventures as Catholic, the writer’s conversion in no small part to the influence of Mgr. O’Connor.

One detects that, like the fictional sleuth with whom he was to be identified, Mgr. O’Connor ‘studied’ those—celebrated or not—who came to his attention. In each case, however, it was not a ‘crime’ as such he was out to ‘solve’ as the biggest crime of all, namely sin, and how it blocks the ability to believe. Many confessed to him, and this included his more famous friends, some coming many miles to do so. Perhaps, inadvertently, Chesterton’s invention of Fr. Brown and his introduction to the world of literary crime was a timely reminder to all concerned that the popular fiction genre reflected a deeper truth about the human condition, one that went back to the lies spoken in Eden and the blood spilt soon after in fratricide.

Fact is indeed stranger than fiction, with Mgr O’Connor a much more interesting figure than Fr. Brown. Nevertheless, despite Mrs. Smith’s extensive research, there is by the book’s finish just as much of a mystery left about that priest as the mysteries that Chesterton invented around his clerical alter ego. Perhaps that is the real discovery, one Mgr. John O’Connor would have enjoyed and probably would have pointed us to in any event—namely that, in the end, each life is really a mystery known only to God.

There is a Fr. Brown story titled “The Resurrection of Father Brown”, which is, needless to say, about the seeming return from the dead of the said priest. Of course, as it turns out, it is nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, in a strange way the real life ‘Fr. Brown’ did come back from the grave. It occurred shortly after his death. A film crew was in France filming a movie version of Chesterton’s sleuth. At the end of a day’s shooting, the actor playing the cleric was walking back to his hotel still in costume, and as he did so a young boy came alongside before taking his hand and then proceeding to speak to the Abbé with a confidence and intimacy that impressed the actor. In fact, it impressed him so much that by the time the boy had bid the ‘priest’ good night the incident had left an indelible mark upon him. The actor in question was Alec Guinness, and two years later, in 1956, he was received into the Catholic Church, oft citing his experience filming Father Brown as pivotal.

There would have been no Fr. Brown in print or on screen without Mgr. O’Connor, and without him there might not have been a writer standing in a makeshift chapel at a Beaconsfield hotel being received into the Church, nor for that matter would there have been any actor walking back to his hotel after a days filming dressed in Roman clericals. In both instances, the Irish priest would seem to have solved the problem of belief for others and, in so doing, introducing those concerned to the greatest mystery of all, namely, faith itself.

The Elusive Father Brown: The Life of Mgr John O’Connor
by Julia Smith
Gracewing, 2010
Paperback, 221 pages

Father Brown of the Church of Rome: Selected Mystery Stories
by G. K. Chesterton
Ignatius Press, 2002
Paperback, 265 pages.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.