Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Publication Date: 1967
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Synopsis via Goodreads: It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared.
They never returned. Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the reader must decide for themselves.
(Photo taken in Hazlemere within the Chiltern Hills in southeastern England.)
This is a lovely, strange little book worthy of a read on a particularly warm and sunny day. After watching the very haunting and beautiful film adaption a few years ago I have been meaning to track down and read the source material for a while now. Thanks to my wonderful boyfriend, this was one of the many books I received for my birthday last week and the first of my new batch to be devoured. As it’s been warmer than usual in the southeast of England for the past week (sadly rain today!) I thought a story taking place during the blazing heat of the Australian summer was appropriate.
Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock has somewhat of a cult following due to its famously obscure and uncertain conclusion. The story surrounds the events of a picnic taken by a group of schoolgirls at the site of Austrailia’s Hanging Rock on St. Valentines Day in the year 1900. What began as a leisurely summers day quickly turned into a haunting mystery after three of the girls and one governess wander into the stone peaks of Hanging Rock and never returned.
Lindsay states following ambiguous passage before the beginning of her novel which sparked a lengthy debate on whether or not the bizarre disappearances were based on an actual event:
“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 this book are long since dead, it hardley seems important.”
This inspires a level of notoriety to Lindsay’s already haunting narrative that has followed Picnic at Hanging Rock from it’s publication in 1967 to the present day. The fine line Lindsay teases between a factual narrative and what we now know to be the interpretation of a fictional event is woven into her flowery and descriptive prose throughout. Occasionally breaking the third wall to speak directly to the reader, Lindsay addresses the bird’s eye view perspective of the events that she provides following the disappearances, allowing the reader to form their own conclusions of what actually happened on the fateful Valentine’s Day. While the story begins with the picnic, the bulk of the narrative explores the varying levels of effect that the mystery had on both the school and the surrounding community. Lindsay also highlights the type of morbid curiosity and unapologetic gossip that occurs following such media spectacles.
And while this could be viewed as strictly a mystery novel, there is a particular air about Lindsey’s storytelling (accurately captured in the film adaption) that hints at a much more mystical or otherworldly influence to the events at Hanging Rock. But much like the rest of the Australian mystery novel, the source of the disappearances are up to the reader to interpret themselves.
Separate to the original novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s ‘missing chapter’ was released a few years after Lindsay’s death and was said to have been originally removed from the novel per her publisher’s request. Whether or not this is true, the missing chapter certainly offers a bizarre explanation for the events in the original novel. I won’t discuss the contents of what was released as The Secret of Hanging Rock, but the ‘missing’ conclusion to the novel is certainly not as popular as the novel and seems to often be dismissed entirely by fans of the original novel.
I can say with ease and confidence that I loved Lindsay’s novel. If it wasn’t for the occasionally difficult to follow descriptive writing I would have awarded it five stars. For all other aspects of the novel including the creepy and generally unsettling tone set throughout I recommend this book to lovers of mystery and thriller novels as well as fans of horror. While not scary in the traditional sense, I found Picnic at Hanging Rock to send a chill down my spine in a way not dissimilar to a Victorian ghost story. I’m looking forward to the release of the new mini-series starring Natalie Dormer airing on the BBC at the end of the month — very exciting! In the meantime, check out this excellent piece of Austrailian literature and give the original 1975 film a watch for a creepy and unique storytelling experience.