Opal Whiteley

Opal Whiteley
Opal Whiteley
Born December 11, 1897(1897-12-11)
Died February 16, 1992(1992-02-16) (aged 94)
Napsbury, Hertfordshire, England
Resting place Highgate Cemetery, Highgate, London, England
51°34′01″N 0°08′49″W / 51.567°N 0.147°W / 51.567; -0.147Coordinates: 51°34′01″N 0°08′49″W / 51.567°N 0.147°W / 51.567; -0.147
Other names Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans
Education University of Oregon
Occupation Naturist, diarist
Years active 1916 - 1948
Notable works The Story of Opal

Opal Whiteley (December 11, 1897—February 16, 1992) was an American nature writer and diarist whose childhood journal was first published in 1920 as The Story of Opal in serialized form in the Atlantic Monthly, then later that same year as a book with the title The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart.[1]

Whiteley's true origins and the veracity of her diary were disputed during her lifetime, and continue to be questioned today.



Whiteley claimed to be the daughter of Henri, Prince of Orléans, who died unmarried in 1901. According to Whiteley, she was taken to Oregon in 1904 and brought to a lumber camp where she was adopted by Ed and Lizzie Whiteley. While Opal Whiteley used several names during her lifetime, the one she preferred and was later buried under was Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans.

Family members claim that Opal Irene Whiteley was born in Colton, Washington, the first of five children. In 1903, after having spent almost a year in Wendling, Oregon, the Whiteley family moved to Walden, Oregon, near the town of Cottage Grove. Whiteley grew up in small towns near various lumber camps, usually in poverty.

Whiteley claimed (and her grandmother Acseh Smith concurred)[citation needed] that Whiteley's mother often disciplined her with severe corporal punishment. Whiteley's diary includes many accounts of punishment by "the mamma." The negative portrait of her mother caused Whiteley to become estranged from her family, particularly since the other children claimed they were never abused.[citation needed] The controversy may have contributed to the effort to discredit Whiteley's narrative as a hoax since it was considered disloyal for grown children to question their parents' right to have disciplined them, however severely.

Biographers[1][2] have confirmed that at an early age, Whiteley was a noted amateur naturalist and a child prodigy who was able to memorize and categorize vast amounts of information on plants and animals. One of her schoolteachers, Lily Black, felt that Whiteley was a genius; she was two grades ahead of her age in school, and Black took advantage of the then-new inter-library loan system to get books for Whiteley from the Oregon State Library. In 1915, newspaper editor Elbert Bede began a series of articles in the Oregonian about her, filled with glowing praise.[citation needed]

When she attended university in 1916, Whiteley was still living at home. When her mother and grandfather died, she moved out and began supporting herself solely through her lectures.

Whiteley traveled to India in the 1920s as her supposed biological father had done: she was the guest of the Maharaja of Udaipur, and wrote several articles about India for British magazines.[2] Her presence caused some trouble with the British government in India, especially when a local cleric fell in love with her. Leaving India, she eventually[when?] settled in London. She grew increasingly disturbed, and was often in dire poverty.

Whiteley suffered a head injury during the bombing of London,[citation needed] and soon thereafter was committed to Napsbury psychiatric hospital. Whiteley was known to the staff of Napsbury as "the Princess," and visitors remarked that she actually behaved like one. Whiteley remained at Napbury until her death. She was buried at Highgate Cemetery, where her gravestone bears both her names with the inscription "I spake as a child".[3]

Nature writing

According to Whiteley and her grandmother, as a child Whiteley was usually punished for daydreaming and "meditations," for running away to go on "explores" instead of working, for misguided attempts to help around the house which ended in disaster, and especially the time and effort she spent on caring for the animals around the lumber camp. She had a great many animal friends, both wild and domestic, to whom she gave fanciful names derived from her readings in classical literature. Despite her troubles, Whiteley wrote of her childhood as though she had often been very happy: even after a severe beating, she could write "I'm real glad I'm alive."

As a teenager, Whiteley joined the Young People's Society of Christian Endeavour and rose to the position of State Superintendent. She began tutoring local children and young adults in natural history. She became famous throughout the region as the "Sunshine Fairy" and gave numerous lectures on geology and natural history. Attending the University of Oregon in fall 1916, she was reportedly regarded in awe by professors and students alike.[citation needed]


I have read with interest a number of comments on The Story of Opal ... which not merely cry out that this remarkable testament of a child's heart must be tinctured with fraud but which deplore its 'sentimentalism' and even point to it as one more instance of the amazing American appetite for mush ... But that it is a beautiful and touching and piercingly honest revelation of an imaginative child's spirit seems to me evidently beyond cavil.

Christopher Morley, quoted in an 1920 Atlantic Monthly advertisement.[4]

Whiteley attempted[when?] to self-publish a textbook, The Fairyland Around Us, which was developed from her popular talks on the natural world. Unfortunately, she ran out of money for Fairyland and was only able to send a limited number of copies to subscribers. She then went in search of a commercial publisher, without success. However, in a meeting with Ellery Sedgwick, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly, she arranged to publish her childhood diary instead, which if authentic, would have been written c. 1903-4.[1]

According to Sedgwick in the foreword to the published diary, Whiteley brought in Fairyland, and when asked about her background, her detailed memory led Sedgwick to ask if she had kept a diary. When she replied that she had, but it was torn to pieces, Sedgwick requested that she re-assemble it. However, one of Whiteley's biographers uncovered a letter from Whiteley to Sedgwick in which she requests an appointment with him and describes having kept accounts of her observations of the natural world from a very early age.[2] If this is true, Sedgwick may have partially invented the tale of how Whiteley's diary came to his attention. Sedgwick claimed that Everett Baker, an attorney and head of the Christian Endeavour organization in Oregon, wrote a letter to him that said that on two occasions Whiteley's mother admitted to him and his wife that Whiteley was adopted.[5]

Photos which initially appeared in The Story of Opal showed Whiteley at work on the reconstruction and pictures of two of the diary pages.[1] The diary was apparently block-printed in crayon and phonetically spelled on various types of paper. According to Sedgwick's account of the reconstruction, it was a laborious undertaking, as many of the torn pieces were only large enough to contain a single letter and the pieces had been stored in a hat box for years.[1]

Debate over diary's authenticity

Benjamin Hoff based much of his argument for authenticity on the premise that it would have been an extraordinarily elaborate deception for the adult Whiteley to first create a diary as a child might have printed it, then tear it up, store it and re-assemble it for Sedgwick and the Atlantic Monthly.[1] Further, he indicated that he personally examined some of the few remaining diary pages and that chemical tests of the crayon markings showed that the crayons were manufactured prior to World War I. This claim was initially made by Lawrence in Opal Whiteley, The Unsolved Mystery, who said she had had the diary pages submitted for scientific scrutiny.

Some claim that she fabricated the diary to gain publicity and that she suffered from a psychological disease (possibly schizophrenia) that led her to engage in fantasies about her "true" parents.[2]

Reprints, adaptations and productions

The diary was reprinted in 1962 with a lengthy foreword by E.S. Bradburne (Elizabeth Lawrence), as Opal Whiteley, the Unsolved Mystery. It was reprinted in 1986 with a biography and foreword by Benjamin Hoff[1] and again, with a new afterword, in 1994. Lawrence's version has been reissued in an expanded edition as Opal Whiteley, the Mystery Continues.

Hoff's reprint of the journal contains a detailed account of his research into Opal's life and the origins of her diary, and supplies evidence that concludes that the diary was authentically created in childhood, but he disbelieved Whiteley's claims of her adoption.[1]

Though the U.S. copyright of her diary has lapsed, the international copyright is still extant and is held by the Library of the University of London. The full dramatic rights to the diary are held by Robert Lindsey-Nassif, author of the Off-Broadway musical, Opal, which won the Richard Rodgers and AT&T Awards.

In 1984, an adaptation of her diary was published by Jane Boulton, under the name "Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart."

The diary was adapted into an off-Broadway musical by Robert Lindsey-Nassif, opening in New York in 1992, published by Samuel French, Inc.

The international copyright to the diary is still in effect and is controlled by the Librarian of the University of London.

Opal's book, The Fairyland Around Us, of which only several original copies are known to exist, was transcribed and reproduced on a website in 1999 by David A. Caruso.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Hoff, Benjamin; Whiteley, Opal Stanley (1986). The singing creek where the willows grow: the rediscovered diary of Opal Whiteley. New York: Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 0-89919-444-3. 
  2. ^ a b c d Beck, Katherine (2003). Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness. New York: Viking. 
  3. ^ Who Was Opal? (BBC Radio 4, 5 January 2010)
  4. ^ "The Story Of Opal:The Journal of an Understanding Heart". Advertisement from Atlantic Monthly. Google Books. 1920. http://books.google.com/books?id=-mYCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA882#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved March 2, 2010. 
  5. ^ 1920 Letter Supporting Opal's Adoption Story. Quotes a letter written by Everett Baker and reprinted in the Cottage Grove Sentinel in 1967. Webpage found 2010-03-10.
  6. ^ Skipping Stones Magazine, Vol. 12, #2, ISSN: 0899-529X.

External links

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