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A woodcutter's daughter who turned into a princess. She was born in about 1897 and was brought up in the lumber camps of Oregon. As a young girl of six and seven she kept a diary of this, but her jealous sister tore it into a thousand pieces.

As a young woman Opal wrote a book on natural history, and the publisher she approached, though not interested in her book, was fascinated by the vivacious woman and her tales of the lumber camps. He asked whether she had written it down, and she told him about the scraps, still kept in a shoebox; the shoebox was sent for; and Opal moved in with the publisher's family to spend nine months painstakingly piecing together the fragments, on all sorts of discarded paper, in a very crude, angular hand, all in capitals.

The book was published in 1920 when Opal was 22, first in serial form, and it caused a sensation. The Times Literary Supplement called it "the most complete picture of the inner life of the child that can be imagined"; her English publisher called it "one of the most attractive and important books we have ever published", the Morning Post called it "one of the most entrancing books ever printed". She was famous overnight.

Then the bombshell. In her introduction to the book Opal Whiteley said that she was not the true daughter of the Whiteleys, but was a changeling brought there at the age of five to replace their late daughter Opal. What her true parents had left her were a couple of exercise books containing lists of facts and names from literature and the classics, from which she took the elaborate names of her pets.

Furthermore, her diary written at the ages of six and seven contained snatches of French, which she could not possibly have known. She several times referred to herself as petite Françoise. As the diary was scrutinized it was found to contain acrostics, such as a list of French river names which yielded the name Henri d'Orleans. Other lists revealed the names of other members of the French royal family, descendants of King Louis-Philippe.

She was now convinced that she was the natural daughter of the explorer Prince Henri d'Orléans, and she went to India in about 1924 to research his travels. Here the Maharani of Udaipur accepted and entertained her as HRH Mlle Françoise de Bourbon-Orléans. She now lived in London, under the patronage of Lord Grey of Fallodon, and moved in society as Princess Françoise, though the French royal family did not acknowledge her.

She lived a brilliant life as a socialite, and wrote up her Indian tour, but her powers began to wane. She increasingly suffered from delusions. She lived in a flat in fashionable Hampstead in north London, with ten thousand books.

In 1948 her neighbours' and landlord's complaints led to her removal, and she was incarcerated in a mental hospital; where she lived the last forty-four years of her life, forgotten, until her death at the age of 95, on 17 February 1992.

Afterword. On 5 November 2001 evilrooster and Gritchka happened to be walking through Highgate Cemetery, in a distant and unfrequented pathway, admiring the more poignant and ivied of the graves, when we came upon a tombstone, inscribed thus:

FRANCOISE MARIE
DE BOURBON-ORLEANS
(OPAL WHITELEY)
DIED 17TH FEBRUARY 1992
AGED 95 YEARS

"I SPAKE AS A CHILD"

Source: I'd never heard of her before reading the obituary in The Independent.

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