‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by Joan Lindsay

Last week I went to the ‘concert-of-a-lifetime’ – Bruce Springsteen. What does this have to do with Picnic at Hanging Rock, a story about a group of Australian schoolgirls written by Joan Lindsay in 1967?

Hanging Rock is the common element. The stage at the Springsteen concert (first image from here and the other I snapped on my phone) was set against the backdrop of the spectacular Hanging Rock. Given that it is also Australian Literature Month (hosted by Reading Matters), I thought it fitting to revisit one of my favourite stories.



It’s been more than a decade since I last read Picnic at Hanging Rock. The story is simple – on Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies went on a picnic to Hanging Rock. After their lunch, a group of girls decided to climb the Rock. Some of them never returned.

When it was first published, there was much speculation as to whether Picnic at Hanging Rock was fact or fiction (it’s fiction but in the days before the internet there was no immediate way to get an answer). Furthermore, the unresolved ending of the story kept the mystery alive and is part of its charm. Lindsay’s original draft included a final chapter in which the mystery was solved. At her editor’s suggestion, Lindsay removed it prior to publication. However, in 1987, the final chapter – titled The Secret of Hanging Rock, was published posthumously.

I’m not terribly good at reviewing re-reads and this is no exception. My feelings about this book have built gradually, after countless readings, the enchanting movie version directed by Peter Weir in 1975, and of course the fuss when the final chapter was released (I do remember going to the bookshop immediately after school and standing there to read it!).

So why do I love this story? Part of it is purely nostalgic but what truly stands out is Lindsay’s description of the Australian bush – you can feel that summer day and the descriptions of Hanging Rock are intimate –

“Confronted by such monumental configurations of nature the human eye is woefully inadequate…. Does Marion Quade note the horizontal ledges crisscrossing the verticals of the main pattern whose geological formation must be memorized for next Monday’s essay? Is Edith aware of the hundreds of frail star-like flowers crushed under her tramping boots, while Irma catches the scarlet flash of a parrot’s wing and thinks it a flame amongst the leaves? And Miranda, whose feet appear to be choosing their own way through the ferns as she tilts her head towards the glittering peaks… So they walk silently toward the lower slopes, in single file, each locked in the private world of her own perceptions, unconscious of the strains and tensions of the molten mass that hold it anchored…”

Lindsay is often criticised for creating ‘obvious’ characters – the beautiful, whimsical Miranda; delicate and doting Sara;  ugly, plodding Edith; and the nasty Mrs Appleyard. Yes, the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters is clear but I think it adds to the fairytale quality of the story.

Small details unfold to add to the mystery – Irma’s missing corset; the mass hysteria of the school girls akin to scenes from the Salem witch trials; visions of white swans and so on. Each detail is doled out gradually and skillfully, causing readers to lose their footing.

It is impossible to visit Hanging Rock without thinking about this story, although I suspect this is largely due Weir’s critically acclaimed film and its haunting soundtrack.

There are some wonderful descriptions of the picnic, including –

“Lunch had been set out on large white tablecloths close by, shaded from the heat of the sun by two or three spreading gums. In addition to the chicken pie, angel cake, jellies and the tepid bananas inseparable from an Australian picnic, Cook had provided a handsome iced cake in the shape of a heart…”

I have never had any success with angel cake, although I’m happy to eat other people’s efforts.

4/5 For the sense of place and time, for the lingering mystery.



21 responses

  1. What a treat to revisit this story that looms so large in our imaginations — even for those of us who live on the other side of the world. I remember the film and watched it again after reading the book for the 2012 Australian Literature Month. I love that you saw a Springsteen concert there. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  2. I really enjoyed your review and share your love of the story. Chapter 18 continues to linger as a thorn in the side of Joan Lindsay’s legacy, which I think has to do with it’s posthumous marketing as ‘The Secret…” All she did was give her publisher the rights to it. After some research I reviewed it on Goodreads. Fortunately one of her editors is still with us, to clarify the controversy surrounding that particular chapter. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/369631111
    Great photos and I’m glad you enjoyed ‘The Boss’.

  3. What an amazing experience seeing Springsteen in that setting would have been!

    I reread this a few years ago and have been meaning to go and visit Hanging Rock ever since! One day I wll actually do it!

  4. I’ll never forget being at the Hanging Rock horse races one Australia Day, when a kangaroo hopped across the track mid-race. It’s hard to imagine anything more Australian than that! It must have been an amazing concert. What a backdrop!

  5. Thanks for your review, link & participation in Australian Literature Month.

    In the past I’ve had many a lovely picnic at Hanging Rock, it is indeed a rather beautiful (and magical!) place. I imagine seeing Bruce Springsteen there would have been rather exciting — such a terrific backdrop for a concert!

    I do have very fond memories of this book and remember writing one of my very first journalism pieces about the 20th anniversary of the film, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. 🙂

  6. How lucky you are: I looooove Bruce Springsteen!

    You’re right with the small details adding to the mystery and the consequences on the reader. It was the first time I had read the book (I discovered it thanks to the Australian Literature Month). I have really like it but, unfortunately, I haven’t been really enchanted by the movie.

  7. For me the movie would win. But I liked the book a lot too. I visited the rock a few times when I lived in Melbourne – I liked to take interstate and overseas visitors there. It really does have an eerie quality.

  8. Pingback: April 2013 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  9. You should not believe that this so-called ‘missing 18th chapter’ was written by Joan Lindsay herself, because it probably is not. There is no material evidence whatsoever for this idea: no manuscript, no typoscript, no annotations, no notary document transferring the rights to her publisher, no ‘last will’ in which Lindsay says she wants the chapter published after her death.

    All we have is hearsay, and more hearsay, by her editor/publisher, who made quite some money off the published “18th chapter” and the renewed interest in ‘Picnic’.

    My best guess is that this is a total sham. Lindsay was a fierce and vocal advocate of her novel as being conceived of and written as open-ended. She loathed the idea of there being some practical who-dunnit solution to the book. And seriously, the solution totally undermines the literary and philosophical qualities of this great novel.

    So please take the ‘missing 18th chapter’ for what it most probably is – a sham.

  10. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge Wrap-up | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  11. Pingback: TBR Thursday 12… | FictionFan's Book Reviews

  12. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  13. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Love in a Cold Climate | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  14. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  15. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.