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Ivor Gurney
Opal Whiteley
Louis Wain
Feature Articles: Famous Napsbury Residents
A series of articles on famous Napsbury Hospital Residents
Opal Whiteley

The story of Opal Whiteley is the last in our series on ‘Famous Patients’.
Opal Irene Whiteley was born on December 11, 1897, the eldest of five daughters of a logging family who followed work to Cottage Grove, Western Oregon where she was brought up. Her grandmother remembered her as a queer girl, always asking questions and chattering, when she wasn’t reading or writing, and prone to bouts of inattention and absentmindedness. Nor were her faults corrected by frequent ‘switchings’: a favoured punishment in those harsh times.
Her childhood spent wandering the woods fuelled a very scientific interest in nature.
She made a huge collection of plants and reputedly had a way with animals who would often come to her hand to be studied.
Opal was admitted to the University of Oregon in 1916 where she was noted for her voracious reading, her fey habit of talking and singing to animals and her ‘New Age’ appearance. With her flowing skirts and long plaits flying out behind her as she ran, she was a prototype for the hippies of the 60s who believed, as did Opal, that we should all encounter and love nature and one another.
Opal’s mother died from cancer in 1917, her maternal grandmother died on the next day and it is thought that she never recovered from this double blow. After that she seldom saw her family and abandoned the church activities of her youth. She attempted to get into films, travelling to Los Angeles with a set of professional photographs that she touted round the studios without success. She turned to teaching the children of wealthy Californians about nature and raised an enormous amount of money from private subscription.
This she paid to a printer for the publication of her book ‘The Fairyland Around Us’. The book was to have fulfilled a long held ambition but Opal made so many changes to her manuscript during printing that the printers overspent. Tragically, when she was unable to pay, they destroyed the plates and she was left with printed sheets, which she attempted to paste together into a book.
Some say that this was when her mental condition deteriorated in earnest. In pursuit of a publisher for her book she travelled to Boston where she found Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He was enchanted with her, though not with ‘Fairyland’, and lodged her with his mother-in-law while she pieced together the diary she claimed to have written as a child and which had been ‘torn up by a jealous sister’. The diary, The Story of Opal - Journal of An Understanding Heart was an immediate success when it was serialised in The Atlantic Monthly. These touching stories of an Oregon childhood portrayed Opal as at once innocent and knowing. In them she skipped through the woods in the company of animals, rejoicing in the wonders of God’s nature while nursing the effects of yet another walloping from the unsympathetic adults who surrounded her.
“The back part of me feels a bit sore, but I am happy, listening to the
twilight music of God’s good world. I’m real glad I’m alive.”1
It sounds self conscious and quaint to the modern ear but her adoring audience was eager to drink in Opal’s innocence after the horrors of WWI. Unfortunately, more startling revelations followed when her diary was published as a book. She was in fact not Opal Whiteley, but the kidnapped daughter of a French prince - she had been substituted for the real Opal Whiteley, who had drowned. Her “Angel Father” was Henri d’Orleans, of the deposed royal family, who had died in India in 1901.
This proved too much to swallow. Sceptical articles and even a literary parody appeared in reputable magazines. Her family back in Oregon were ‘researched’ so thoroughly that they left town and changed their names. Her book disappeared from the bookshops and Opal was left alone to elaborate her fantasies of royal connections.
Despite her catastrophic fall from grace she remained able to charm the wealthy and, nothing dismayed, made new friends who paid for a trip to Europe where she spent some time with the mother of Henri d’Orleans in France. From there to India in her royal father’s footsteps to live as a royal guest of the Maharana of Udaipur.
Then silence… No more was heard of her from the early 1930s until 1948 when she surfaced again, living in London in a squalid Hampstead
bed-sitter surrounded by 10,000 - 15,000 books. She was declared a ward of the state and committed to Napsbury Hospital.
Carlisle Moore, professor emeritus of English at the University of Oregon corresponded with her and visited her a number of times when on sabbatical in the 1960s. He disputed her claim that she was confined against her will stating that “it was obvious that she couldn’t take care of herself.” He was “certain she was not in possession of the real facts of her life” and said that she talked about her upbringing in France and Italy even though “she knew she was not believed, and yet she insisted on it.”
Her insistence paid off in the end for, sometime in the 1960s, staff at Napsbury began calling her Francoise d’Orleans and, it is said, even changed her name in hospital records.
2In 1983 she was rediscovered by American writer Benjamin Hoff who published her diary along with an extensive foreword under the title “The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow”. The book was finally published in Opal Whiteley’s 90th year. Her psychiatrist revealed that “she knew that it was ‘her’ book at last” though her eyesight was so poor that she could not see the photographs and had to feel for the embossed title on the hard cover.
She died in 1992 aged 94. Her gravestone in Highgate Cemetery bears both names... Francoise d’Orleans and Opal Irene Whiteley. I leave the reader to decide which name was real and which imagined.
3Maria Aguado
1 The Story of Opal - Journal of An Understanding Heart, Opal Whiteley (1920)
2 Beryl Carrington, Herts Advertiser Friday November 20th 1987
3 Thanks to Steve McQuiddy for permission to use information from his websiteand pictures of Opal aged19 and in her 60s , do read his very informative article at