No 404 Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, originally published in 1967 is a story which has not only captured the public imagination, but has entered into urban legend. A critically-acclaimed film version by Peter Weir and a recent television adaptation have only added to the allure of this tale of young white women who go missing at the foreboding Hanging Rock in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges.

The story’s continuing appeal and disconcerting attraction comes undoubtedly from its melding of fact and fiction, originating in the novel, which is billed as a true story (it isn’t) and then capitalised on by the tourism industry at Hanging Rock itself. The mystery of the missing girls remains unsolved in the novel, and as such, refuses to be demystified in reality, creating a cultural touchstone that is imbued with atmosphere and dread.

The book opens on the morning of Valentine’s Day, 1900, in the grounds of Appleyard College, a prestigious boarding school for wealthy young women. The girls, and some of their teachers, are going for a picnic to Hanging Rock, where three of the girls – Miranda, Irma and Marion – along with their governess, Miss McCraw, vanish without trace. Another girl, Edith, who was with the party emerges from the scrub hysterical, with her dress torn to pieces and no recollection of what has happened to the other girls, save for having seen Miss McCraw in her underwear.

Despite a thorough police search, nothing of the missing party is found. An English family, the Fitzhugh’s, also picnicking that morning, saw the girls before they vanished and Michael Fitzhugh, the young son, cannot get the girls – and in particular Miranda – out of his head. A week later he goes back to the Rock and there he finds Irma, unconscious, but otherwise unharmed despite her week out in the elements. The others are never heard from again. What has happened to them? Did they get stuck within the Rock and perish? Were they abducted? As with any mysterious disappearance, the theories grow.

Once the girls have disappeared, the book morphs from being a plot-driven mystery, to an atmospheric exploration of the ramifications that their disappearance brings. Lindsay herself has said,

“I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.”

The dark ripples that flow out from the ‘College Mystery’ have a dramatic effect on many connected to the school. The missing girls and governess are at the heart of the novel, but the peripheral characters feel the force of their disappearance just as much. Mrs Appleyard, the Headmistress, struggles to keep wealthy parents from pulling their children from the school and her inability to balance the books has a worsening effect on her character. Michael, who discovered Irma, questions his own existence in light of his brief interaction with the beautiful Miranda. Some of the teachers, unable to bear the darkening atmosphere, make plans to leave, but these plans often have more devastating consequences than staying. Irma finds her inability to remember anything that happened that day has made her an outcast, while Sara, an orphan who worshipped Miranda will eventually face a fate as bad as that of the disappeared girls.

Unseen, unrecorded, the pattern of the picnic continued to darken and spread.

All the characters appear pulled towards their fates, just as the girls were pulled towards the lure of Hanging Rock, which looms large over the entire plot, an immovable image of darkness and loss. What gives the novel much of its atmosphere, is not just the mystery at its heart, but a dream-like state that pervades the narrative. Characters fall in and out of consciousness, dreaming so vividly that they are unsure of what is real and what is not. Time becomes fluid as watches stop and the very nature of reality is questioned.

Nature and the environment takes on a sense of foreboding, presented as being threatening, impenetrable and enigmatic, an entire world lying just below the surface of the respectable lives of the colonial British, ready to rear up and overrun their flimsy order. It is as if Lindsay is depicting how precarious the nature of the colonial position is, when the landscape can so easily take over and topple what was once sturdy.

The very fact that Lindsay retains the mystery of what happened at Hanging Rock and provides no answers, is what gives this book its power. She removes cause and explanation and focuses instead on unknowable fate, using a third person narrative voice to suggest that there was no way these happenings could have taken place any other way. The Rock itself becomes the symbol for patterns of destiny that will result in the destruction of Appleyard College itself.

The shadow of the Rock has grown darker and longer. They sit rooted to the ground and cannot move. The dreadful shape is a living monster lumbering towards them across the plain, scattering rocks and boulders.

While many readers might not appreciate the ambiguous ending, I thought it fit perfectly with the hallucinatory and unresolved nature of the story. The mystery retains its power by remaining unsolved and the image of the virginal young women, dressed in white, ascending that prehistoric monolith moves into myth.

A final chapter, which was cut from the original novel, was published in 1987, but I have no inclination to read it. For me, the power of Picnic at Hanging Rock is held in its empty spaces, the gaps in the story where the reader’s imagination is more powerful because it is personal.

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36 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Do not read the ‘final’ chapter – my memory of it was that it was terrible (and I RUSHED to the book shop the day it was released because, like all teenage readers of the book, it was all about Miranda and I was obsessed with finding out what happened to her).
    This is a book that I have re-read a number of times, partly because my brother lives near the Rock and I see it on the way to his house, which means it’s never far from my mind. Pre-covid, the Rock is used as the backdrop for concerts – I’ve been lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen there twice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The best novels — for me at least — are the ones that don’t tell you everything but leave aspects that you can mull around in your mind. Though I’ve neither read the novel nor seen the film I remember the impact especially of the latter in the public imagination. I’m glad these novels are still available so that I bring some maturity to bear on any reading of it, a maturity which I certainly lacked at the time this was published.


  3. I’m not always sure of ambiguous endings but I can see that in this case it fits perfectly, it would make the whole story a bit trite if it was neatly folded at the end! I must put this on my list straight away, I don’t think I’ve seen the film but as you say it’s a story that has entered our consciousness. All very interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A great review of a brilliant book, and I agree that the story’s ambiguity add to its power / memorability. I rewatched the Peter Weir film last year, and it still hold up – a wonderfully atmospheric piece of cinema! (PS Have you seen The Falling by Carol Morley, a film that specifically references the Weir in at least one key scene?)


  5. Having climbed Hanging Rock a few times, I can tell you that the atmospherics are definitely there. I took a bunch of school kids there on an excursion once, and one of my colleagues thought it would be funny to hide some of them behind a rock where they couldn’t be seen. I knew that they couldn’t really have disappeared, but still, my heart fluttered a bit till they jumped out of their hiding place!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Completely agree re: the final chapter! The story is so much stronger without it! Have you read the contemporary version The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone? It seems our fascination with mysteriously-missing girls is enduring!


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