Picnic at Hanging Rock

picnicTragedy has long fingers that often stretch far beyond those immediately affected by it. Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel explores how those fingers touch a community when three girls disappear while on a St. Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900 at the Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. Four girls, all students at a private boarding school called Appleyard College, wander off together toward the rock after their picnic. One girl returns, screaming in terror, but the others seem to have vanished without a trace. In addition, their eccentric math teacher, last seen dozing in the sun, is also gone.

Although the disappearance is essential to the plot, the novel isn’t particularly concerned with the reason for the disappearance. There are hints of something supernatural going on, but nothing is pinned down. Lindsay’s original draft of the novel did explain their disappearance, but that final chapter was not included in the original publication. It was later published under the title The Secret of Hanging Rock. I found the text online and found the solution unsatisfying, but I didn’t find the mystery the most interesting thing about the novel—or, to put it more clearly, I didn’t find the solving of the mystery the most interesting thing about the novel.

There is an interesting mystery here, but that mystery has more to do with the pivot points of life, the moments everything changes. For so many people, the girls’ disappearance was just such a pivot point. The effects are not necessarily felt immediately, but they are felt, as Lindsay notes at about halfway through the novel:

The reader taking a bird’s eye view of events since the picnic will have noted how various individuals on its outer circumference have somehow become involved in the spreading pattern: Mrs Valange, Reg Lumley, Monsieur Louis Montpelier, Minnie and Tom—all of whose lives have already been disrupted, sometimes violently. So too have the lives of innumerable lesser fry—spiders, mice, beetles—whose scuttlings, burrowings and terrified retreats are comparable, if on a smaller scale. At Appleyard College, out of a clear sky, from the moment the first rays of light had fired the dahlias on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day, and the Boarders, Waking early, had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favours, the pattern had begun to form. Until now, on the evening of Friday the thirteenth of March, it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete. On the lower levels of Mount Macedon it continued to spread, though in gayer colours, to the upper slopes, where the inhabitants of Lake View, unaware of their allotted places in the general scheme of joy and sorrow, light and shade, went about their personal affairs as usual, unconsciously weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole.

Some of the consequences are predictable. The headmistress of the school finds herself losing students and facing financial ruin after the tragedy. A man who takes an active role in the search for the girls is rewarded for his efforts. But other effects seem almost as mysterious as the initial disappearance, even as their origins can be clearly traced to that event. Life can be explained, but only up to a point. And what happens to us cannot ever be entirely under our control, if only because we cannot control other people, and their actions affect us.

Also striking in this book were the languid quality of the prose and pacing. You might imagine that a novel about disappearing girls would feel like a thriller, but that’s not the case here at all. (Another reason that the disappearance and the reason for it seem beside the point.) Lindsay spends far more time on setting scenes and creating atmosphere than on pushing the plot. Things happen but they happen in between the more important moments of reflection and dreaming, almost as if the whole world is still caught up in the picnic atmosphere:

Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool, they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon. Some wandered off in twos and threes, under strict injunctions not to stray out of sight of the drag; others, drugged with food and sunshine, dozed and dreamed.

After the picnic, amusement is no longer possible for many of the characters, but some do still seem to be dozing and dreaming—or wishing they were. They’re stuck at the Hanging Rock, whether good or bad, its power is with them still.

There was a very good film made of this book in 1975, directed by Peter Weir. I saw the film years ago, and, from what I remember, it captures the atmosphere of the book quite well.

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25 Responses to Picnic at Hanging Rock

  1. I never realized there was a book. I loved the movie and went through a phase where I watched it several times; loved how it was like a poem, so evocative. And those beautiful girls in their white dresses…

    • Teresa says:

      If you love the movie, you really should look for the book. It’s got that same poetic quality. I want to see the movie again now!

      • I will definitely read it. For some reason this discussion has made me think of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between” and the Julie Christie film based on it–always one of my favorites, not the same as Picnic but the same; slow, haunting, based on mystery-of-the-human-heart. You have probably seen film/read book–but if not you would love both!

      • Teresa says:

        I read The Go-Between a couple of years ago and liked it very much!

  2. realthog says:

    This is a book I love and adore — if anything, I like the movie even better. They’re both masterpieces in their two different media.

    Odd coincidence: This afternoon, just a few hours ago, I was looking along the shelves for a completely different book and noticed my copy of Picnic. Oh, I thought, so that‘s where that’s got to.

    If you ever get a chance to read Yvonne Rousseau’s The Murders at Hanging Rock, grab it! It’s a marvelously (and deliberately) eccentric piece of work, building what could be regarded as a complementary novel to Lindsay’s original in the form of a piece of literary criticism. Not only is it highly readable, it actually does serve as a very perceptive piece of literary criticism!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll have to see the movie again to see which one I like best. They’re both excellent.

      And thanks for the Rousseau suggestion. I can see how Lindsay’s book would inspire some fascinating commentary.

  3. Thanks for your review. I’ve often heard this title, associated it with the movie in my mind, told myself I should probably make an effort some time to see such a movie with such an evocative and mysterious title, and never thought of it as a book at all. Not knowing that it was a book, I also never knew that there was a “solution” manuscript. Your review has been helpful and informative as well as intriguing.

    • Teresa says:

      The film shows up on lots of best film lists, so I knew of it first as well. I like Peter Weir’s work (or at least find it interesting when I don’t like it), which was what got me to seek it out.

  4. samantha1020 says:

    I read this one awhile back and really enjoyed it. I didn’t realize there was a movie based off of this…I am kinda excited to hear it. Great review!

  5. This is one of those iconic titles that exists in my reading subconcious to the point where I feel I have read it but really haven’t. I love the sound of it from your review – definitely one to watch out for. I haven’t seen the film either, forever put off by my mum not letting me watch it when I was about 10 or so. I think she thought it was a horror film!

    • Teresa says:

      The premise certainly makes it sound like a horror film, although it’s not one at all. It’s probably not for a 10-year-old either, though.

  6. Laurie C says:

    I didn’t realize it was a book first, either. I remember traveling into the city with my father to see the movie back when it came out, when I was 14 or 15; I didn’t really understand what happened in the movie, but pretended I did. I do remember how beautiful everything was. I should look for the book and then watch the movie to compare them.

  7. I’ve still never read the ‘missing’ ending, as I just don’t want to know – it is fine as it is, all slow and languid and mysterious.

  8. I almost bought a used copy of this book and I’m wishing I did…

  9. Charity says:

    I just added this one to my TBR list last week in an attempt to read more books set in Australia (or at least to add more Australian books to my TBR list). Your review leaves me even more excited to read it. I just read Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, which is definitely mysterious, but probably spookier and faster paced than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Languid and mysterious sounds like it would hit the spot right about now.

  10. JaneGS says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for years–the concept is intriguing. Interesting about the tone, languid as opposed to a thriller.

    > Life can be explained, but only up to a point.
    I like the way you put this. Nicely done.

  11. litlove says:

    I read this with my real life book club a couple of years ago and it provoked one of the best discussions I’d ever been present for. We did read versions with the ending that had been lopped off, but like you, we felt that it didn’t really add to the book which was intriguing for all sorts of anti-thrillerish qualities! A perplexing book about a perplexing event, but both proved oddly gripping.

    • Teresa says:

      I can imagine how this would be great for a book group. So much to think about both regarding what might have happened and how people dealt with it.

      One thing I did like about the added ending is that it was still mysterious. I was glad to know that there really wasn’t a proper answer. But that’s evident from everything that went before, so the confirmation wasn’t needed.

  12. Jay says:

    Nice post. I really enjoyed the film version too. Saw it on a (possibly hungover) weekend afternoon, which was the perfect combination for me somehow… :-)

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