While I had never before read Joan Lindsay’s book, Picnic at Hanging Rock, I have seen the movie, and the memory of the mystery surrounding the missing schoolgirls at Hanging Rock has stuck with me for a good couple of decades. I decided it was time to revisit the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock, in its original form this time, and boy was I glad that I did.
Joan Lindsay’s writing was simply delightful, poetic yet compelling with a hint of underlying sense of menace and sinister goings on. Set in 1900, at Mrs Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, the story follows a Valentine’s Day picnic gone horribly awry when two of the students and a teacher go missing at Hanging Rock. What makes this story so compelling is that it reads like a historical recounting of factual events, which is amplified by the Author’s Note that states:
“Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.”
How terribly wicked of Joan Lindsay to taunt us, the reader, like that.
So is it real? Or is it indeed fiction? The answer doesn’t matter. (Although these gnawing questions do spur the reader on.) What do matter are Lindsay’s writing and her remarkable ability to spin a good mystery story. I, too, was suckered in, and found myself wanting to know if Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on fact or a marvellous work of fiction. As Hanging Rock, is a real place in the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, the story thus lends itself to these musings.
I am currently living in China and Joan Lindsay’s in-depth descriptions of the Australian countryside were a strong juxtaposition for me against my own polluted, busy, tree-less environment. If anything, this made the landscape stand out even more. For example, the opening paragraph reads:
“Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees out the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive. Heavy-headed dahlias flamed and drooped in the immaculate flowerbeds, the well-trimmed lawns steamed under the mounting sun.”
Lindsay goes on to draw wonderfully vivid pictures of life in Australia in 1900 with sentences like this:
“Appleyard College was already, in the year nineteen hundred, an architectural anachronism in the Australian bush – a hopeless misfit in time and place.”
And delightful visions of her characters such as this:
Greta McCraw is “[a] tall woman with dry ochre skin and coarse greying hair perched like and untidy bird’s nest on top of her head, she had remained oblivious to the vagaries of the Australian scene …”
Mrs Appleyard – “an immensely purposeful figure was swimming and billowing in grey silk taffeta on to the tiled and colonnaded verandah, like a galleon in full sail.”
I enjoyed every moment of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It conveyed a sense of time and place that was palpable and I loved the underlying tension that Lindsay has created with the mystery of the missing school girls and their teacher; the menace of the overshadowing Hanging Rock in the distance and how that threat seems to spread ever outward impacting on those who attended the picnic.
For those of you who simply must know: Is the story fact or fiction? The answer is – fiction. There final chapter, which solves the puzzle of the missing girls, was removed from the story at the suggestion of the publisher and only published after Joan Lindsay’s death. I haven’t read this final chapter, and so can’t comment on whether it detracts from the original publication and its niggling mystery, or if it satisfies all of the reader’s questions. All I can say is that Picnic at Hanging Rock was a great read and I loved it.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Penguin Group 1967) ISBN:9781743480946 My Kindle edition was published by: Penguin Group (Australia) e-penguin, 2013