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.