Joan Lindsay’s one-time literary curio has grown to become one of Australia’s most important and beloved contributions to literature. Picnic at Hanging Rock, first published in 1967, not only brought to the nation’s consciousness the magma-deep mysticism birthed centuries back by Australia’s aboriginals, but it inspired a worldwide curiosity which has since turned Hanging Rock into a popular tourist attraction.
Supposedly based on or inspired by true events (a claim that the author prefaces the novel with but had never in her lifetime authenticated), Picnic at Hanging Rock, is the story of a group of boarding school girls at the turn of the century who, on a fateful Valentine’s Day, take a field trip to Hanging Rock (a rural area in Australia, much of which was formed by centuries of volcanic activity). During an exploratory walkabout, four of the girls mysteriously disappear when they try to climb the summit of Hanging Rock. Investigations are deployed and all manner of gossip finds its way to every end of the country.
As the faculty and student body try to come to grips with the harrowing reality of their sudden and distressing circumstances, the social pecking order of their prestigious boarding school slowly disintegrates. Things are only further complicated when one of the missing girls is later found alive. But the mystery only deepens…
Lindsay’s novel works a kind of narrative that is at once a critique on the stifling mores of upper crust society and a quietly unnerving horror story. While not a theme exactly new in the annals of literary fiction (every writer of the Gothic tradition has well worn the schoolgirl-in-jeopardy storyline down to its withered bone), it is Lindsay’s fine and immaculate writing that reveals a startling undertaking in narrative style as she ploughs the depths of a most unusual drama. Persuasive and sensual, but always observed from a cool and cautious distance, the lives in Picnic at Hanging Rock are detailed with paisley-structured design. The enigma behind the joys and despairs that are compounded to create the camaraderie of these girls far exceeds the attraction to the seemingly indestructible myth that pervades the mysterious Hanging Rock; there’s a strange mystique to the composition within the boarding house and the unsettling airs of bitter rivalry hang with shameless conviction. Lindsay plies the narrative with questions of female indignation, the emotional reserves which harbour the most poisonous sentiments liable to destroy any code of sisterhood honour.
The theories behind the missing girls abound and extend beyond the pages of fiction; everything from the earthly rationales of murder and accidental death to the more fantastical speculations of time-warps, otherworldly dimensions and UFOs has often been deliberated and debated over. The novel’s original ending, in which the disappearance of the girls (the causes of which are supernatural, indeed) is explained, was removed to heighten the sense of foreboding and restlessness. Doing so places the point of tension on the disintegrating friendships, with Hanging Rock looming in the narrative background as a subtle and contentious agent of instigative ruin.
Penguin Books’ 50th Anniversary edition is really just another reprint of the novel that features an opening essay, beautifully written by Maile Meloy. The essay espouses the significance the novel has in the canons of Australian literature and also explains how Hanging Rock gained popularity as a landmark as a result. Meloy also describes the closing moments of the original final chapter which, lamentably, Penguin failed to reprint, even as an addendum. It should be noted that the book’s popularity soared even higher with the haunting and moody film adaptation by filmmaker Peter Weir, who did indeed incorporate elements of Lindsay’s original planned ending into his film. In any case, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains an addictive and mesmeric work, certain to lure even its most leery reader to its haunting and cryptic summit.