Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land where the seasons are inverted from what is usually experienced by the world at large, the flora and fauna belong to an evolutionary niche not seen elsewhere and the original settlers are the descendants of deported convicts. Yet over this, an English-ness has been imposed: the carefully cultivated gardens, the finely turned out ladies and gentlemen, the afternoon teas and the elevenses. This contrast often gives rise to a tension between man and nature which has been explored by countless writers and filmmakers. This novel by Joan Lindsay is an outstanding example of one such exploration.
Hanging Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation in Australia near Melbourne. As the story starts, a group of young girls, boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, is excitedly starting for their annual picnic near it, on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. There is Miranda, beautiful like a Botticelli painting; Irma Leopold, the pretty heiress; Marion Quade, top academic performer; Edith Horton, the college dunce and many others. They are chaperoned by the young and impressionable Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw who lives virtually in a world of equations. They are driven to the spot by Ben Hussey, the owner of the town’s livery stables, in his trap. The only student left behind is Sara Waybourne, the youngest boarder as a punishment for not learning The Wreck of the Hesperus by heart.
The picnic goes well until teatime, when Miranda, Irma and Marion decide to go closer to the Hanging Rock to properly examine it. Edith tags along. They are seen by the young Hon. Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England with his uncle and his coachman Albert Crundall. Fitzhubert, captivated by Miranda’s beauty, follows them for a bit then turns back. That is the last anyone sees of them, however – because all except Edith, who rushes back in an attack of hysteria, disappear without a trace; as does the mathematics mistress. The mystery is never solved.
The novel is the chronicle of the fallout from this event – how the lives of all the people connected with it, even the minor characters, are inextricably changed.
At the outset, the author writes:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
This is the tone set right at the beginning – that of the “true story” – with quotes from letters and reports peppered throughout the narrative, and even footnotes in some places. In many places the writing becomes reportage; in others, it reads like an inexpert author trying to fictionalise historical characters and events. It is only when we realise that none of this happened that we come to appreciate what Joan Lindsay is trying to do – and we acknowledge her mastery of the medium.
If whether something really happened “seems hardly important”, what does it say about the nature of the “story”? Is truth important here, or is there a truth beyond the phenomenal world which we consider rock solid?
As the story progresses, people’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The college, a solid bastion of English respectability in the middle of wild Australia, slowly unravels – as does the redoubtable headmistress Appleyard. The tension between her and the orphan Sara (whom she subjects to mental torture mercilessly) is like a taut elastic band which is stretched and stretched until it breaks – with disastrous results. It is also to be noted that Sara idolises Miranda, who is almost a myth, an ethereal vision which fittingly disappears.
But the real protagonist of the story is Hanging Rock, the volcanic formation which is millions and millions of years old, standing ominously tall above all the puny humans crawling around like ants at its base – ephemeral beings whose unimaginably tiny lifetimes it must have surely smiled at, mockingly.
…The plain below was just visible; infinitely vague and distant. Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?’
Marion looked out over her shoulder. ‘A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it’s probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.’
The elemental power of the Australian landscape here is what is drawing the girls out of their so very English cocoons. Throughout the narrative, this rough land calls out to us in a thousand tongues: through the hissing of snakes, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of lizards, the wind through the trees – and through the silent and impressive presence of Hanging Rock. It finally succeeds in drawing even the stolid Mrs. Appleyard out.
And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gustsof spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the north wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires…
Nature, in all her raw and pristine glory – nature, come to extract her price from civilisation.