Well. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very weird book. Let’s see if I can manage a more detailed post than that. I think the premise of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel is pretty famous: on St Valentine’s Day in 1900, the hot summer weather in Victoria is perfect for a picnic by the Hanging Rock. A small party of girls from Mrs Appleyard’s Young Ladies College, along with two teachers, welcomes the break from Mrs Appleyard’s rather oppressive and restrictive routine. After lunch, some girls go for a walk into the undergrowth around the Hanging Rock. Despite previous warnings about how dangerous the Rock is, and the fact that they have no intention of going far from the group, somehow they find themselves compelled to climb up and up towards the peak – further and higher than they had ever planned. They never return.
And Miranda, whose feet seem to be choosing their own way through the ferns as she tilts her head towards the glittering peaks, does she already feel herself more than a spectator agape at a holiday pantomime? So they walk silently towards 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 to the groaning earth: of the creakings and shudderings, the wandering airs and currents known only to the wise little bats, handing upside down in its clammy caves. None of them see or hear the snake dragging its copper coils over the stones ahead. Nor the panic exodus of spiders, grubs, and woodlice from rotting leaves and bark. There are no tracks on this part of the Rock. Or if there ever have been tracks, they are long since obliterated.
This is very much a Gothic novel – the closest thing to horror I can ever bring myself to read – and I found the tone suitably haunting throughout. You can see a little glimpse of it in the quote above. Although it’s famous for having an ambiguous ending, I didn’t find it ambiguous at all – Lindsay is much more interested in the impact of what becomes known as “the College Mystery” on its surrounding community than she is on the causes of the disappearance, and those are depicted one after another. On several occasions, the narrator makes references to ripples or concentric circles of darkness spreading out from the college following the incident. It’s sinister and unsettling, and I would say that it is absolutely paid off in the final chapters of the novel. What is ambiguous is the cause of these events – they seem natural, like Mrs Appleyard’s slow descent into alcoholism as she tries to cope, but there is always the hint of something else lurking beneath.
The contrast of the very stuffy, very British, very Victorian boarding school with the Australian landscape, where it does not belong at all, is done extremely well. When the senior girls get further up the Rock, they take off their shoes, and emphasis is made by several people on how inappropriate their dresses would be for any kind of outdoorsy activity – the girls’ clothes, which are so representative of the environment in which they are being taught, are completely unsuited to the place where they actually live. In the discarded chapter (see below), the three girls also take off their corsets. At points, it seems that the countryside itself is sentient, taking aim at the college for living in a manner so disharmonious with the land. Even our early introduction to Mrs Appleyard’s makes clear that it doesn’t fit – later quotes about the college itself are more subtle and more sinister, but I think this is a good thing to lead off with.
Appleyard College was already, in the year nineteen hundred, an architectural anachronism in the Australian bush – a hopeless misfit in time and place. The clumsy two storey mansion was one of those elaborate houses that sprang up all over Australia like exotic fungi following the finding of gold. Why this particular stretch of flat sparsely wooded country, a few miles out of the village of Macedon crouching at the foot of the mount, had been selected as a suitable building site, no-one will ever know. The insignificant creek that meandered in a series of shallow pools down the slope of the ten acre property offered little inducement as a setting for an Italianate mansion; nor the occasional glimpses, through a screen of stringy-barked eucalyptus, of the misty summit of Mount Macedon rising up to the east on the opposite side of the road.
There is little I can write about the plot, not exactly for fear of spoilers (this novel is all about atmosphere – I don’t think I could spoil it), but because one event informs the next so much that I would have to give much too much context, and the review would become as long as the novel. As to the ending – well. There is a final chapter that Lindsay had released after she died, “The Secret of Hanging Rock”, and I read a synopsis once I was finished – but I think her editor was right to ask her to excise it from the novel. To put it in literary terms, the discarded chapter is bananas. In it, the supernatural elements which are simmering under the surface throughout the novel are made explicit. I think if it were included in the completed novel, it would undermine the tension that runs throughout the novel. Of course, Lindsay shows herself to be an extremely talented writer in the rest of the novel, and it may be that she would have pulled it off well – but the summary at least reads like one of those early Doctor Who episodes where the music is very chilling but the villain is clearly made of two rubber gloves and some bubble wrap, and it’s impossible not to laugh. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it wasn’t included in the main text.
Final comments? Well, I picked this up at 2130 on Wednesday – I usually read for about half an hour before turning in. Somehow I read straight through until I finished the book well after midnight. I really struggle to sleep if I deviate at all from good sleep hygiene, so for me to sit up past midnight on a work night reading is extremely rare (especially if I am teaching the next morning, which I was). Truly an indication of how compelling I found the story! I have been very tired for the rest of this week, but it was more than worth it. For a slim novel, there is a lot in here that I simply don’t have room to talk about in this review – all I can do is recommend it wholeheartedly!