Opal Whiteley was buried as Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orleans, with a line on her tombstone, "I spake as a child." As Kathrine Beck points out, both the name and the claim are likely lies.
Opal was a woman whose life provoked admiration, controversy and, nearly always, annoyance. She gained a degree of fame quite early in life, when at age 21, the Atlantic Monthly printed in a series her little book The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart. The editor who accepted this fey and rather charming work as her genuine childhood musings was known to have carved out his career in yellow journalism, once having himself invented and sold the public on a story about horses the size of housecats. Yet he seemed to have believed that Opal was presenting him with a true childhood work, a story of the glories of nature written in an idiosyncratic and annoying style with phrases like "I did then have joy feels all over" and far too many sentences beginning with "tis" and "twas." But many people found it enchanting: "Some wept at the suffering of little Opal...others found it pretentious and arch. Amid a huge storm of publicity, the Whiteley family, portrayed badly in the book, changed their names and disappeared."
Opal, in her childhood, did in fact exhibit an intuitively brilliant love of nature, and began independently teaching younger children about the great outdoors in the environs of the logging camp where her kind but somewhat ordinary family lived -- too ordinary for this singular adolescent, who began to fantasize and later become obsessed by the notion that she was not of their lineage but had been given to her mother by descendants of the French royal family. A sweet and simple childlike creature, petite and very pretty, Opal became a determined self-promoter and seeker after this skewed "truth" about herself, sweeping along anyone who would believe even a portion of her pack of fabrications, using them as supporters and faux parents and discarding them when the charm wore thin, generally leaving a packet of unpaid bills and a pretty messy room. Opal/Francoise despised housework.
Her first book, The Fairyland Around Us, was "financed in part by collecting deposits from people who wanted to buy the book before it was published. Opal always had charm." Opal parlayed this work into an agreement from Atlantic Monthly to publish "her childhood diary" and then proceeded, if all the facts can be considered scrupulously, to invent that diary. Claiming it had been destroyed by a vengeful sister and that she had kept the scraps in a hatbox, Opal sequestered herself (at the expense of an admirer) and wrote the book on scraps of brown paper, with the words all run together and with a bizarre spelling system meant to seem childlike, yet with a grammatical sense that no child would ever possess. In the "diary", Opal clearly had it in for "a cruel caretaker known as the mamma," inventing instead her "Angel Father and Angel Mother" who "taught her to love nature, gave her the knowledge she had of the greats of art, literature and history, and watched her from afar." These figures later became amalgamated with the French royalty who had paid the Whitely family to care for her at age five, a claim which would have been absurd and pitiful if made by almost anyone but Opal, who had the knack of making the fantastic seem, for a moment, real.
Opal chased her obsession all over the world, sadly losing interest in the nature lore that had forged her fan base, in favor of her insistence that she had royal blood and would in time prove it. She went to France, where she wrote to her presumed grandmother. Though there are no responses on record from her French family, she managed to make a lot of people, some of them rich and powerful, believe that a significant contact had been made which validated her bizarre claims. In India, she fell under the spell of a fake fakir who seems to have been as fooled by Opal as she by him, and in the heady atmosphere of the Raj she was forced to leave to avoid scandal. She was the virtual prisoner of a group of Theosophical Society recidivists in London, and once lived in a convent - afterwards some of the nuns continued to mend her clothes and wish her well. She ended her days as a madwoman, committed to the Napsbury Asylum in England after "neighbors complained that she was shouting in the street and that her apartment smelled foul."
Opal still has a following. There are websites devoted to her nature lore and her goofy poetic prose. One legitimate author, Jane Boulton, adapted Opal's "diary", and the book she produced is used as a text in alternative education. There is even an Opal School, and a play called "Opal". As Beck states in her introduction, "There are those who believe that Opal was a genius and that if the diary were read more widely, the world could become a better place."
Certainly, as Beck deftly portrays her, Opal was a sympathetic and attractive personality with the gift of the sociopath for drawing others, intelligent and sensible others, into her private world of madness. In her youth she gave her adolescent fantasies full sway, destroying on paper her real mother, always the target of a teenage girl's antipathy. But as these fantasies ripened it was way past a joke. Beck, whose reportage is fair and research thorough, makes it clear that Opal/Francoise embarrassed and finally disgraced her birth family and left a trail of perturbed and angry patrons across the globe. Hardly making the world a better place.