Whiteley, Opal Stanley

Alternative names
Birth 1897-12-11
Death 1992-02-17

Biographical notes:

Opal Stanley Whiteley was born on December 11, 1897 in Colton, Washington and later moved with her family to Walden, Oregon, near the town of Cottage Grove. It was in Walden that Whiteley wrote a diary, later published in 1920 by the Atlantic Monthly, which was to become both celebrated and controversial. Whiteley was keenly interested in nature and botany; she became an amateur naturalist and utilized her interests in both nature and religion for her work in the Oregon Christian Endeavor Union. Between 1916 and 1920, Whiteley intermittently attended the University of Oregon, traveled throughout Oregon giving a series of lectures on nature, attempted to find work as an actress in Hollywood, and wrote a book called the Fairyland around us, based up her nature lectures. By 1920, she was in New York working with Ellery Sedgewick to publish her childhood diary in the Atlantic Monthly. This diary was very popular, but soon became controversial, as some readers doubted a child could have written such a lyrical and fanciful account of nature. In the 1920s and 1930s, Whiteley traveled in Europe and India, but by 1935, she was living as a ward of the city of London. In 1948, she was placed in Napsbury Hospital outside London, where she died in 1992.

From the description of Opal Whiteley Papers, 1911-1977. (University of Oregon Libraries). WorldCat record id: 49309600

Opal Stanley Whiteley was born on December 11, 1897 in Colton, Washington to Mary Elizabeth Scott Whiteley and Charles Edward Whiteley. When Whiteley was about six years old, the family moved to Walden, Oregon, situated near the town of Cottage Grove. It was in Walden that Whiteley wrote a diary, later published in 1920 by the Atlantic Monthly, which was to become both celebrated and controversial.

Whiteley was keenly interested in nature, botany, and collecting a variety of specimens and objects from her outdoor environment. She became an amateur naturalist and utilized her interests in both nature and religion for her work in the Oregon Junior Christian Endeavor. By 1915, Whiteley was appointed state superintendent for all Junior Christian Endeavor work.

Whiteley grew passionate about writing nature books for children and realized that she needed to pursue a college education in order to acquire the resources to actualize this ambition. In 1916, she entered the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Whiteley did not have the financial resources to pay for her second year’s tuition, so she devised a plan that would satisfy her need for income while engaging her intellect and passion concerning the natural environment. She traveled throughout Oregon giving a series of lectures on nature. Unfortunately, this endeavor did not bring in the needed funds to cover her educational expenses and so she had to drop out of the University. However, Whiteley was determined to finance her education and realize her literary goals and so she enacted a second plan. Armed with a portfolio of publicity stills, she traveled to Hollywood to find work as an actress.

When work as an actress did not materialize, Whiteley wrote a book called The Fairyland Around Us, based upon her nature lectures. She managed to raise funds for the book’s publication through private donations, but the revisions she wanted cost more than she had. As a result, the printer scraped the plates. However, Whiteley finally managed to collect enough money to pay for the binding of several hundred copies. She was persuaded to look for a publisher on the East Coast and so she traveled to Boston. There, she approached Ellery Sedgewick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, with her book. Sedgewick was not interested in the Fairyland manuscript, but inquired as to other writing Whiteley might have done. In March 1920, The Atlantic Monthly published a serialized version of Whiteley’s childhood diary and the book version was released in September of the same year.

The diary was controversial for several reasons. First, Whiteley claimed that she had written the diary when she was six years old. Her use of French and Latin names and phrases seemed beyond the skills of a child at that age, as did her references to aspects of the Catholic religion. Secondly, Whiteley claimed to be adopted and that her natural parents were angels. Amid the controversy, Whiteley left Boston for New York and later, Washington, D.C. In 1923, she sailed to England and then journeyed to France. Her purpose in going to France was to meet the mother of Henri d’Orleans, a man of title whom she claimed as her true father. His mother sponsored a trip to India for Whiteley, a place that had fascinated her son. Whiteley wrote a book about India’s royal family, which was printed in a London publication.

In 1925, Whiteley returned to England and in 1935, she was living as a ward of the city of London. It is not clear what transpired in her life during those ten years, and in 1948, she was deemed unable to care for herself and placed in Napsbury Hospital, a public care facility outside London. Opal Stanley Whiteley died at Napsbury in 1992.

From the guide to the Opal Whiteley papers, 1911–1977, (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries)

Opal Whiteley was born on December 11th 1897, in Colton, Washington, the daughter of Edward and Lizzie Whiteley. During Opal's childhood the family moved to the rural area of Oregon where she grew up. From a very young age she demonstrated an enthusiasm and affinity with nature. She was also very much involved in church activities and gained a reputation as a speaker and a teacher on the natural world.

Whiteley enrolled to study at the University of Oregon in 1916. She supported herself by giving lectures, but unfortunately could not afford to complete her studies. In 1918 she went to Hollywood in order to try and become a film actor but was this was an unsuccessful venture. Her lectures, however, continued to be popular, and she began work on a nature book for children called The Fairyland All Around Us . She covered the cost of publication by raising subscriptions, but ran out of money when she wanted to make changes to the printing plates, and these were destroyed by the publishers. Whiteley continued to work on the book by hand, to the detriment of her health.

Whilst trying to find a publisher for The Fairyland All Around Us , Whiteley met Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the American periodical The Atlantic. It was in this journal that The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart was first published. Introduced as the diary written by Whiteley during her sixth and seventh years, it was an immediate success. However, within a year of its publication there was considerable controversy about the work. Many people came to believe that it was a hoax, and that it had actually been written by the adult Whiteley.

The issues surrounding Whiteley and her work are further confused by the doubts surrounding her identity. From about the time of the publication of the Diary Whiteley began to claim that she was the daughter of Henri d'Orléans, a prince of the deposed royal family of Bourbon of France. This man, and her mother (who was identified variously by Whiteley) are referred to 'Angel Father' and 'Angel Mother' in the Diary. From this time onward she began to use the name Françoise de Bourbon d'Orléans.

Whiteley devoted much of her time to the search for information about what she regarded as her true parentage. Various influential people supported her in this search. In 1923 she used money received from Lord Grey of Falloden, who had become a close friend after reading the Diary, to travel to England. From England she went to France where she visited Françoise Marie Amélie d'Orléans, the mother of Henri d'Orléans. She, in turn, provided the funds for Whiteley to travel to the Udaipur region of India, where Henri d'Orléans died, so that she could find out more about him. From September 1924 Whiteley lived at the guesthouse of the palace of the maharana of Udaipur, under the assumed name of Françoise d'Orlé.

While she was in India Whiteley carried out extensive research into the customs, activities, life and surroundings of the areas in which she travelled. The results of this work can be partially seen in an article, The Story of Unknown India, which was eventually published by The Queen magazine. She also had plans to publish longer works on the subject of India, but these never came to fruition.

Whiteley returned to England in 1925, and in 1926 she travelled to Rome, and then on to Vienna where she spent 2 years living in a convent. In 1927 she returned to England, and for the next 20 years lived variously in London and in Oxford. She devoted herself to her writings, collecting books relating to her researches and to her Catholic faith. Her writings from this period grow increasingly confused, and many of her many friends and supporters appear to have lost touch with her from the late thirties onwards. In 1948 Whiteley was found to be unable to look after herself, and was taken into the care of Napsbury Hospital in St Albans. She died there in February 1992.

From the guide to the Whiteley, Opal, c1900-c1978, (Senate House Library, University of London)


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