Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: Walkabout to Nowhere

You know a book’s been around for a long time when it has been published most recently by “Vintage Books.” First published in 1967 the book hints at the fact that it is based on a true story. Just after the cast of characters in the front of the book Lindsay cheekily notes: “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…” The end of the book has an extract from a Melbourne newspaper dated February 14, 1913 the anniversary of the picnic event. These two appearances in the book at the beginning and the end suggest that the book is in fact based on a true story.

The book was made into a pretty damn good film in 1975 (I guess I should review it as well) by Peter Weir and the film’s is just this side of brilliant. Moody, overbearing, suspenseful, foreboding and creepy as hell; but having said all that, the book is ten times better. I had seen the film first and fell in love with this slow-moving intense film. Today, I actually found a copy of the original book and decided to have a look. I power read this book in one setting (it is only 181 pages long)

As noted earlier, the story takes place in 1900 and it centres on a prestigious girls boarding school. The rich young ladies number 25 and have an overbearing Mrs Appleyard as Headmistress. The remainder of the staff are divvied between groundskeepers, household staff and tutors. On the 14th of February all the young ladies (but one, Sara Waybourne who is being punished) are allowed to attend Hanging Rock for a chaperoned picnic with two members of staff.

Once the girls arrive at the rock, they eat their picnic and then rest; except for three senior girls and one junior who decide to explore the towering rocks of Hanging Rock more closely. They pass another small group of picnickers and then start up the rock. By the end of the day, three of the girls are missing and one of the teaching staff has disappeared as well.

The rock’s in question.

It has been said that Ms Lindsay wrote this book in four weeks and that it originally had an additional chapter that actually explains what happened that day. It was removed at the editors request, thus making the book into an instant classic and wildly popular. Later the additional chapter was released (1987) *information courtesy of Wikipedia* and after reading the twelfth chapter, I agree with the editors initial decision; it added to the air of mystery of the story and helped to make it seem more real.

Four weeks!

Lindsay takes the incident at Hanging Rock as a catalyst that affects an entire group of people in ever-expanding waves (like a pebble after it is dropped in a pond will cause waves that reach the shore, no matter how wide the pond is) and having mostly disastrous consequences for most of those caught up in its “evil.” The book is much more in-depth in dealing with the characters and their thoughts, feelings and reactions.

It also shows how the event set in motion even more misery and tragedy than the actual happenings at Hanging Rock. For those that have only seen the movie, you will be surprised at how much deeper the book goes. I had pretty much fallen in love with the film and decided that it could never have been topped by the book.

I was incredibly, delightfully wrong.

While the book does not have the same level of intensity of the film, it has its own aura of foreboding and tension. The descriptive writing style of Joan Lindsay makes you feel the oppressive summer heat; the discomfort of all the clothes the young ladies have to endure in the name of decency and the dusty miserable conditions faced in the “bush” of the Outback in Australia.

I literally could not turn the pages fast enough (I know that I have said that before, but hand on heart, it’s true) and when the ending came to its inevitable conclusion I sighed the sigh of one disappointed by the tragic ending of a book I wanted to read forever.

This is a real 5 star book, that despite the sometimes almost archaic “couching” of its descriptive prose (which goes a long way to helping place the events in the time that they were set) and its old fashioned “colloquial” terms, speeds on like a road runner on amphetamines. If you haven’t read this book, it should be at the very top of your “to read” list.

On a final note, Ms Lindsay would never say whether the book had really been based on a true story; word on the street is that it is not. But if it ain’t, brother it should be.

Author Joan “we are not worthy” Lindsay.