Episodes

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2010010520190718 (BBC7)
20190719 (BBC7)
Journalist Melanie McFadyean investigates the strange life of Opal Whiteley, a child prodigy from Oregon, whose childhood diary was a huge hit in the early 1920s, but whose aristocratic claims were disputed and ultimately brought her to a sad end in a British psychiatric hospital.

Opal's diary described, in an amusing, poetic style, her upbringing in the backwoods lumber camps at the beginning of the 20th century, and her intimate relationship with the natural world - a relationship in which many of the animals she knew, and even some of the trees, were given names, often taken from classical literature.

But it was the story behind the diary's publication that first raised eyebrows - Opal, as an adult, claimed to a publisher that the original diary had been ripped apart by a jealous sister, but the piecies were preserved for years in a hatbox. Opal was encouraged to paste the diary back together, and the manuscript for the book was transcribed from the results.

Many people were sceptical about the diary's reconstruction, but scepticism turned to outright suspicion when Opal turned her back on her Oregon family, as a result of implications in the diary that she was an orphan and that her real father was a member of the French royal family. Opal's diary still divides opinion in America.

During the Second World War, Opal lived in a London flat, along with thousands of books. But her mental condition deteriorated and she was placed in Napsbury Hospital, near St Albans, in 1948, where she spent the next 44 years until her death in 1992. We hear from people who met her and knew her, hear extracts from the diary, and musical clips from a musical about her life.

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2010.

The life of writer Opal Whiteley, whose childhood diary became a 1920s bestseller.

Melanie McFadyean explores the life of writer Opal Whiteley, whose childhood diary became a 1920s bestseller. From 2010.

Journalist Melanie McFadyean investigates the strange life of Opal Whiteley, a child prodigy from Oregon, whose childhood diary was a huge hit in the early 1920s, but whose artistocratic claims were disputed and ultimately brought her to a sad end in a British psychiatric hospital.