Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness

Written by Kathrine Beck
Review by L.K. Mason

In 1920, The Atlantic Monthly published installments of the diary of one Opal Whiteley, a diary of nature purportedly written whilst Opal was a young child. Once released, the diary captivated audiences across America: some found it an enchanting tale of childhood, while others believed Opal to be a fraud. Was the editor at Atlantic Monthly misled, or did he knowingly perpetuate this hoax? This question is only one of many revolving around Opal Whiteley; here Beck sets out to examine the strange and often tragic life of this woman. Among other things, Opal Whiteley professed to be connected to French royalty, lived in India on her own in the late 1920s, briefly pursued the Prince of Wales, and eventually, at the age of fifty, was committed to a hospital, under the Lunacy Act of 1890. Diagnosed as mentally ill, Opal lived at this hospital until her death 44 years later. Beck doesn’t answer the questions of authenticity surrounding the diary or Opal’s origins. Instead, she provides an even-handed portrait of a writer whose works on nature, whatever their origin, have now been used in school curriculum, and have inspired “Opalites” for decades. Fascinating and deeply moving.