Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Katherine Beck (2003)

I ran across this copy of Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Katherine Beck (2003) in a rambling used book store in New Orleans on a recent trip and although I'd never heard the bizarre story of Opal Whitely before, it really caught my eye and I decided to haul it home to Texas with me.

Opal Whitely grew up in small logging towns in late 19th-century Oregon, gained regional fame as a nature-lover and teacher of young children, and went on to reinvent herself as an orphan, a victim of child abuse, the secret daughter of daughter of Henri, Prince of Orléans, and the child bride of the Prince of Wales. During the course of her adventures she published two books, was kidnapped by a very weird group of rich theosophists, tried to seduce Amelia Earhart's husband, and had a steamy sex scandal with a swami who turned out to be a fellow con-artist.

The core of the Opal story is her second book, The Story of Opal, which was originally published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly in 1920. Opal claimed that this was the text of a diary she kept when she was 6 and 7 that her mean younger sister had torn into pieces. She had carried the pieces around with her for years and painstakingly reassembled them when the editor of the magazine showed an interest. Hidden in the diary are all kinds of clues about her "real" parents, including French phrases that Opal claims she didn't know the meaning of. The diary was a huge hit upon its publication, although many readers thought that the diary was a hoax and could not have been written by a young girl. The Whitely family insisted that Opal (the oldest of four children) was a Whitely and not a member of the French aristocracy and pointed out that she looked remarkably like all her sisters. The investigations into the diary led to some negative publicity and stopped the publication of a second volume, but by that time Opal was on her way to India, then Italy and England.

Although she had (and still has) many true believers, I think it is pretty obvious that Opal was a mentally ill woman with the ability to talk her way into people's lives, and that her illness increased in severity as she aged. She, in fact, spent the last 40+ years of her life in an asylum in England, although she continued to receive money and visits from her friends and fans until her death in the early 1990s.

While the story of Opal is inherently fascinating, Beck's rendition of it could be a little better. The book reads relatively smoothly, but as an archivist I find a history book without citations, a bibliography, an index, or footnotes to be a little ridiculous. Still, Beck obviously did her research in this book, including in person interviews with Opal's descendents that provide an interesting coda to the Opal story.

[You seriously need to read all about Opal, even if you don't read this book.]

[The truly devoted can check out her irritating / inspiring diary for themselves on this amazing site!]

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