Friday, December 4, 2009

Book of the Month - Picnic at Hanging Rock

On St Valentines Day in 1900, a group of chantilly lace and straw hat clad school girls set out from their school, Appleyard College, for a picnic at the foot of Hanging Rock, a craggy violet volcanic rock protrusion to the north west of Melbourne.

That afternoon, as bugs and snakes lazily scuttled and slid through the brush and scrub, something quite mysterious happened. All the watches carried by the picnic party stopped at midday, and as most of the party snoozed at the base of the rock, three girls and one teacher wandered off into the scrub and simply disappeared.

Beautiful Miranda, studious Marion Quade, heiress Irma Leopold and tightly corseted maths governess, Greta Magraw.

(Miranda (we never learn her surname) the country girl from Queensland who disappears and forms the empty heart of the book)

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of that disappearance, and the tragic after effects. Written by Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) in 1967 it was made into a wonderful, iconic Australian film by Peter Weir in 1975 and it is hard to discuss the book without reference to the film, which I suspect about 90% of Australians have seen.

Here are some scenes:

(French governess Mademoiselle Dianne De Poitiers, one of the few sane and calm voices following the Picnic)

(the girls post lunch)

(Miranda and Irma on the Rock)

(walking, trancelike, further up the Rock)

(a nice 1970's mystical shot)

(part of the Rock)

( a visitor to the school following the events at the Rock)

Joan Lindsay married Sir Daryl Lindsay in 1922. They spent their time travelling the world, he with his watercolours, and she with her notebooks, writing. (She was married to him for 52 years until his death). Sounds like rather a nice way to pass the time.

This book is relatively short, absorbing and a must read if you can find it.

What happens when the most popular, angelic and beautiful girl in the school vanishes? This book explores the deep fissure which is left.

Joan Lindsay deals with some quite modern themes in a Victorian context, and also some which you see repeated in many Australian novels. Specifically:

  • The Australian country side as spiritual and malevolent. For more on this, read Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (spiritual) and for the malevolence, any Tim Winton book.
  • The difficulty even wealthy people had living in Australia before the advent of electricity and air conditioning. People were continually aware of and battling against of the elements, all day and all night
  • The ripple effect of tragedy, which spreads out in waves, changes lives, and leaves lasting scars on all who were even peripherally connected to the picnic. This disappearance led to other deaths, and deeply affected all in the community: the police, the local gentry, the other schoolgirls, the headmistress, the staff, gardeners, horsemen, shepherds in the area and many other locals.

  • The pyschologically tortuous effect of not knowing (which of course makes the story resonate even more - an unsolved mystery like this really stays with you).
  • The difficulty of communication in that time. In the case of Miranda, this is what happened - she disappeared on Saturday, they looked for days, on about Wednesday the headmistress wrote and posted a letter to her family on their isolated farm in Queensland, which would have been received possibly weeks later. Imagine your child disappearing and not knowing for weeks afterward. It is impossible to imagine that today, where you would have an email or text within minutes.

It is also possibly a metaphor for Victorian represssed sexuality, and that is certainly contrasted with the sultry heat and steam of the countryside.

Many people are obsessed with the Picnic story. Many are convinced it is true. Many more purport to have 'solved' the mystery. Of course it was just a fiction. It was written as if real, and Joan Lindsay even included an extract from a newspaper story in 1913 reporting on the mystery.

The author herself said 'whether my story is fact or fiction, readers much decide for themselves'.

After Joan Lindsay died, she gave instructions for a final chapter to be published. I have not read it and I probably should. Reviews indicate that this chapter suggests the missing women were caught in some kind of time space vortex....

(polyvore by ophelia_lives)

PS this is Martindale Hall in the middle of nowhere in the Clare Valley in South Australia. It was used as a setting for Appleyard College in the film. Many years ago we stayed there for the night. We were served dinner by colonially dressed maidservants and watched the film before dinner on a tiny television in the upstairs area. Victorian is not my thing, but it was certainly an evocative enviroment to sleep in.

(Images (1) (2) - (9) (11) (12) Flickr)


Mise said...

It's a film I saw many years ago, but I still recall its mutedly sinister air and its baffling beauty. I'm glad to be reminded of it and will look for that book.

brismod said...

Fabulous post! I loved the book and the film when I was younger. It is definitely a good book to revisit.

Aussie New Yorker said...

This film has always wrestled with Withnail & I for top spot on my "greatest films ever" list. I had my 10th birthday at Hanging Rock in the hope of finding a piece of one of the girls' dresses....

karen said...

You can bet I'll be looking for this book and the film...thanking you for turning me on to this book. Great post. Most interesting.

the old boathouse said...

Wonderful post have just recently re watched the movie on Foxtel. The music is amazing. However I regret reading the final chapter. Why do some authors do this? My theory is they have a love/hate relationship with their work. E.M.Forster did similar with the wonderful Room with a View.

Dumbwit Tellher said...

Your post is fabulous. I had never heard of this & now I want to track down the movie ..bad..
Thanks for writing about this incredible, mysterious story Jane. I hope the weekend is glorious as that blue sky in the last photo.

xx hugs from Houston

Jacqueline @ HOME said...

It's not like me Jane, but I have sen the film and haven't read the book. I always do it the other way round and am then disappointed with the film. I didn't have the book to compare and loved the film. I always watch it whenever it's on. It's such a beautiful film and quite spooky. Lovely post Jane. Have a great weekend. XXXX

The House That A-M Built said...

Oh I saw this movie when I was a little girl and I was mesmerised with it's ethereal like imagery. I have never read the final chapter.. I must now! A-M xx

Laura said...

I remember being made to watch this in high school and thinking it was complete odd, and sadly I never looked back. You inspired me to give the movie (and book of course) another try!

Lee said...

Jane, I'm going to take my copy of the book down from the shelves & re-read it. It's been years since I've read it! You've just reminded me what a mesmerising, great read it is. I've not heard about the final chapter - thanks for bringing this to my attention. Do you know where you can access/purchase the final chapter? I'd love to read it.

Fantastic post!

Lee :)

Janet said...

I am headed over to Netflix right now to order this! This is brand new to thatnk you for introducing this American to an Australian classic. Oh the joys of the internet!

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