Joan Lindsay & Picnic at Hanging Rock

Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

Opening lines to Picnic at Hanging Rock

If you’ve ever wondered whether a writer needs to establish early success, or be condemned forever to failure or obscurity, take heart. Joan Lindsay was 71 years old when her classic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was published. It went on to become one of the most famous novels in Australian literature and a haunting film.

Lindsay was born in 1896 and originally trained as an artist. Later, she switched to writing. Her first book was published pseudonymously in 1936 when she was 40.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) was still 31 years off.

Before that, in 1962, Lindsay had another novel published – Time Without Clocks. It covers her wedding and idyllic early marriage. The title also refers to a fascinating detail that links to her future novel, Picnic. According to Wikipedia:

The work takes its title from a strange ability which Joan described herself as having, of stopping clocks and machinery when she came close. The title also plays on the idea that this period in her life was unstructured and free.

Wikipedia entry on Joan Lindsay

Anyone who has read Picnic or watched the film adaptation will know that when the schoolmistresses and girls are picnicking on the ground below the Rock, their watches all stop. Later, at least two of those who go missing seem to be missing their corsets or restrictive clothing. Perhaps also linking back to the theme of a life free and unstructured.

Presented as a true story, Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with a brief note:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in the book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

The novel opens on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, at Appleyard College for Young Ladies. The school is a hothouse of girlish crushes, presided over by the strict Mrs. Appleyard who doesn’t approve of St Valentine. The girls exchange cards and soon they are ready to set out on their picnic. Mrs Appleyard issues strict instructions about their dress and behaviour. For example, they may remove their gloves once their conveyance has passed Woodend.

The girls are also warned about the Rock which is extremely dangerous and they are not to engage in any tomboy foolishness ‘in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes‘.

Of course, some of the party choose to ignore this warning. And the repercussions ripple through the rest of the book, building to a horrifying crescendo long after the girls have vanished.

Although the novel is set in the sweltering heat of an Australian summer, it still falls within the gothic genre. Lindsay had long been fascinated by the Rock. And she compared her book to Henry James’s novel, The Turn of The Screw, ‘about the children in a haunted house with a governess‘.

The Rock, a former volcano, with its mysterious paths where the girls and their schoolmistress go missing, could easily be a stand-in for a haunted house. It towers above the landscape below, like a gothic castle sitting on a peak. But it is also an ancient place. A ‘geological marvel‘ according to Mrs. Appleyard, who expects the girls to write an essay on the subject. She doesn’t attend the picnic with them, and the essays are never written. Unexpected and unexplained events are about to overtake the girls, the teachers, and their school.

Miranda, one of the seniors, is the most memorable and popular of the schoolgirls. The French mistress sees her as a Botticelli angel. Meanwhile, Miranda’s much poorer roommate Sara adores her. Miranda also haunts the young Englishman picnicking with his family below the Rock. He sees her and her friends making their way towards it. It’s Miranda who leads the party upwards. When one of the other girls calls to her in warning, she doesn’t seem to hear. Later, the young Englishman and his family’s stablehand will search for the girls. And one of the girls is indeed found.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was written very fast – over two weeks (some sources say four) – at Lindsay’s home Mulberry Hill in Victoria. It was written in winter, after a series of dreams she’d had about the events. The dreams about a picnic at the Rock were so powerful and vivid that she awoke still feeling the heat of the summer day. Joan wrote down what she remembered, beginning to sketch out the plot. She had another dream the next night and then rushed to write down what she could remember. Night after night she had another dream.

Joan herself remembered that:

Picnic at Hanging Rock really was an experience to write, because I was just impossible when I was writing it. I just sort of thought about it all night and in the morning I would go straight up and sit on the floor, papers all around me, and just write like a demon!

Joan’s live-in housekeeper, Rae Clements, recalled that:

She would come down from her study each day and say she’d had the dream again. Then she’d discuss the characters and what they were up to. She loved Miranda and the French mistress. Miranda was her favourite character. She was also fond of Albert. She often said, ‘Poor Albert! Poor little Sara!’ She definitely had her favourites.

The title of the novel comes from a painting Joan remembered: At The Hanging Rock (1875) by William Ford. The novel was published on the 1st of November 1967. It has since become one of the most important and famous novels in Australian literature.

Many readers assume that the story must be based on fact, but there is no record of a vanished school party. The State Library conducted a search of the February 1900 editions of the Age, Argus, and Woodend Star and nothing was found. Nor does Valentine’s Day in 1900 take place on a Saturday.

But this hardly matters since the fictitious events have entered Australian mythology and folklore. The fame of the book and the later screen adaptation have ensured that the Rock draws plenty of tourists curious about the fate of the girls.

One article even mentions tourists taking pieces of the six million-year-old rock home with them, only to fall foul of weird or unhappy events. Then they sometimes post the fragments back to Australia, like the Irishman who included a map to show where his piece had come from.

Picnic at Hanging Rock ends at chapter 17 and a fictitious newspaper article from 1913. Apparently, chapter 18 was removed on the advice of the book’s editor. This missing chapter explained something of the girls’ fate. But it was felt that the ambiguous ending was better and Joan agreed.

The final chapter appeared in a later book The Secret of Hanging Rock. But the novel is better off without it.

In 1974, Joan said of her novel and its ambiguous end:

Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. 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.

It would spread out further with the Peter Weir adaptation which became a classic of Australian New Wave. The film’s hazy cinematography is partly down to putting bridal veils over the lens and shooting through. This technique was taken from the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and it gave Weir the impressionistic effect he was looking for.

Anne-Louise Lambert plays the part of Miranda in Weir’s film. But in the early weeks of shooting, her confidence was undermined as she was constantly asked to do more takes and retakes. Then one day, when shooting paused for a break, she walked off in her costume, ready to cry. Then she noticed an older woman making her way towards her over some rocks.

It was Joan Lindsay. When Lambert held out her hand, Joan hugged her and said, ‘Oh Miranda, it’s been so long!’ Lambert tried to correct her, saying, “It’s me, Joan; it’s Anne.”

But Joan just brushed this away and called her Miranda again.

To her, I really was someone she had known, somewhere in time. Right then, I felt that if Joan Lindsay believed I was Miranda, I must be doing okay. I felt that if she believed in me, I would be okay.

Anne Lambert

Joan Lindsay passed away in 1984 at the age of 88. She had lived to not only see the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock but the success of the film adaptation. Through her dreams and her childhood fascination with the Rock, she conjured up a story that haunts the reader long after they have read the last page.

The novel, described by one critic as mythopoeic, has become part of Australia’s folklore and mythology.

She also returned to painting in her later years. Her final publication was a children’s book called Syd Sixpence.

Some other posts from the blog

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (review)

Historical fiction as a time machine