Tragedy 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.