Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

Book 2 of 80

Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

Book 4 of 12

There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

63 thoughts on “Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

  1. So glad you enjoyed this as much as I did! I loved the way Lindsay was sending up Victorian values and the doomed attempt to impose them on a landscape and country that didn’t work in that way at all. And I have also decided to believe that the later chapter was a hoax, since it would be so out of step with the rest of the novel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yes – it always makes me laugh that Brits went to all these hot countries and still insisted on wearing the kind of clothes they wore in cold, rainy old Britain! And the idea of not being able to save young women because you hadn’t been properly introduced… 😂 I tried to see what evidence there is about the last chapter either way, and it mostly appears that there’s not much – I couldn’t find any academic discussion of it online, just readers with opinions! So this reader with an opinion has decided it’s a hoax…;)

      Like

    • I saw the film back then too and I think that’s why I thought the book was older – the film feels like a traditional classic adaptation. But actually it came out just a few years after the book.

      Like

  2. So happy you enjoyed this! The supposed last chapter is so out of keeping with the rest of the story that it jars. I read it many years ago and am now intrigued by the idea that it may have been a hoax.
    Joan Lindsay’s in-laws were well known artists and writers too, and I think that she would have been considered much less important of a creator than they were, but this book has aged very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved the film when it came out, but as usual the book is even better – I really hadn’t realised there was so much more to it than just the central mystery. I tried to see what evidence there is about the last chapter either way, and it mostly appears that there’s not much – I couldn’t find any academic discussion of it online, just readers with opinions! So this reader with an opinion has decided it’s a hoax…;)
      She seems to have written lots of essays and stuff, but not much fiction – pity! I suspect this book will live forever though – it’s already a real classic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I feel as if I’ve read it, though… Will check with my mother and have a look in her bookcase. If she doesn’t have it then the last chapter doesn’t exist.
        I’ve read some of Lindsay’s essays and they are well worth reading.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh sorry, I’m being confusing – yes, it does exist and was published sometime in the ’80s, after Lindsay was dead. But the hoax theory is that she didn’t write it – that the person who published it was lying, basically. I don’t know what’s true, but I’d have thought if there was strong evidence that she wrote it herself that there would be all kinds of academic articles about it, and I couldn’t find any. But I also couldn’t find any evidence that it’s a hoax…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, good! I wondered if I had only heard of the last chapter and then imagined having read it. Not that I’m getting old and forgetful, but it was a long time ago.
            I suppose an investigative reader might be able to determine if the author was Lindsay or someone else but from what I remember, the actual events or explanation in the last chapter jarred with the rest of the novel.

            Liked by 1 person

    • I loved the film when it came out and watched it again after I’d read the book. It is very faithful to the book, but also misses out a lot of the periphery stuff that gives the book more depth – well worth reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ambiguity is one of those things that can go badly wrong, so it really shows her skill in being able to make it feel satisfying while explaining nothing! I love the film and it’s good that he stayed faithful to the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely to see you thought this was a good ‘un, FictionFan! I think The People got it right this time 😀 . Seriously, though, I agree that this is a really fine example of how to build suspense. You have a well-taken point, too, about the ambiguity. I’ve read stories where that didn’t work nearly as well, and I think a lot of it does have to do with writing style and plotting. Lindsay did it brilliantly here, and yes, it does keep the story in one’s mind…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, ambiguity is one of those things that can go so badly wrong, so it shows her skill in being able to make it feel satisfying while explaining nothing! And I thought she did the ripple effect really well too – it all felt quite possible that people would have reacted as they did. An excellent one – the People chose well! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A very nice and thoroughly enjoyable review, FF. I’ve been undergoing a dry spell in my reading, so your comment on Picnic in a previous post spurred me to finally read it (I finished last week) and I’m so glad I did. Like you, I found it a very rewarding novel. Again like you, I initially thought it was a much older book and was quite surprised to learn it was published in the 1960s. I was also surprised to discover how much of the story actually pertains to the aftermath of the disappearance and how it affected the various characters, sometimes to their detriment by highlighting some unsavory aspects of their personalities (think the head mistress here!)
    As you pointed out, it’s the ambiguity that makes the book linger in the mind. Lindsay has an unbelievable ability to infuse so many aspects of the story (aside from the disappearance) with delicate suggestions of what may, or may not, be going on; it’s almost as though the reader is actively engaged in making the story along with her! I was quite intrigued to learn that the “final chapter” might actually be a hoax. Regardless of the truth of this, I’m very thankful that a “solution” wasn’t included in the the published book.
    Immediately after reading the novel, I re-watched the Peter Weir film. I was astonished at how faithful he was to the written source. I’m now thinking about a trifecta and going for the miniseries, assuming I can track it down!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it too! I have a feeling it’s the film that made me feel the book was older – it seems like an adaptation of a classic somehow, although it actually came out just a few years after the book. And again, while the film is brilliant and mostly quite faithful to the bits of the book it shows, it leaves out a lot of the aftermath and that, I think, may be why I was also expecting the book to concentrate much more on the central mystery than it does. But I loved the aftermath and how she showed the ripples through the lives of everyone touched by it, and the way she added more levels of ambiguity into their stories too. The headmistress was the undoubted star and I loved how she too unintentionally set in motion events that rippled wider and wider.

      Yes, I loved those blanks spaces for the reader to write her own version too, and if the film has a weakness it’s that in one or two cases Weir clarified things that had been left ambiguous in the book. I also felt that he didn’t quite give the same power to the ending as the book had, and I wondered why he cut it off rather abruptly. The final Mrs Appleyard scene in the book is so brilliant! But I’m very glad he didn’t decide to tack on an explanatory ending to the disappearance! I’m not sure I want to watch the miniseries – I get the impression it may not have been quite as faithful to the book. So if you do watch it, you must let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read the book or seen the film but of course know the title very well, isn’t it amazing that books can be like that? This sounds well worth reading and I definitely won’t read the missing chapter, ambiguity seems to be the whole point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, some books just seem to make their way into our consciousness by magic! I often think I’ve read a classic till I start to re-read it, and then realise I haven’t – I just somehow know the story. Happened to me with The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently – I would have sworn I’d read it before, but I soon realised I hadn’t, or if I had it must have been a severely abridged version! This one is well worth reading, and quite short – and the film is almost as good, and quite faithful to the book. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I feel everyone should take credit for the good ones and deny all knowledge of the bad ones – I never remember who voted for what! 😂 But whoever is responsible did a very good job this month! 😀

      Like

    • I loved the Weir film when it came out and enjoyed it just as much when I watched it again after reading the book – it’s quite faithful. I haven’t seen the mini-series and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to, so thanks for the warning – I think I’ll pass!

      Like

  6. I saw the Weir film long ago, but I don’t remember much of it. You make the book sound really interesting. I almost put this on my last Classics Club list, but for some reason when I made it up, I forgot to add it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw the Weir film back when it came out when I was at an impressionable age, and it has always lingered in my mind. It was many years before I learned it was based on a book. The book is great – the film is faithful but misses out some stuff for length reasons, so the book ends up having far more depth. It’s well worth reading if you manage to fit it in some time… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never seen the film nor read the book. In fact, I didn’t even know of its existence until I came across it on your blog awhile back. I think you’ve finally convinced me to add it to the wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! The People have been doing really well this year – I’ve almost grown to trust them… 😉 Yes, this is definitely one to dig out – I let it linger on my TBR for far too long. And being quite short means it’s not much of a time commitment, which is always a bonus!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did! I actually saw the film when it came out (which gives you an idea of how ancient I must be… 😉 ) and it’s always lingered in my mind. It was many years before I learned it was based on a book. So after I read the book I watched the film again and still loved it just as much! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • As for me my parents let me watch it on TV as a kid in the 1980s (probably end of primary school) and I didn’t understand anything about it. It was indeed a very weird parental choice but probably they had no clue either! Only much later did I read the book and I went “oooh” 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, it must be tough for parents and it does look as if it’s going to be a nice Victorian costume drama – but it isn’t! I remember mine letting me watch a film that looked like a good old-fashioned adventure story and turned into a creepy horror halfway through that terrified me into nightmares for weeks! 😂

          Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I very much doubt if the book would have become a classic if the final chapter had been included! I haven’t seen the TV version and from everything I’ve heard about it, I don’t intend to.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ohhh this does sound so good – I remember voting for it before, so I’m glad it worked out. Wonderfully mysterious fun! Ambiguity does have that affect – we think about it more, puzzle over it when we don’t have the answers. But we need to be given enough to care in the first place, and that’s where good writers become great 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly! Sometimes ambiguity drives me mad and I feel like throwing the book at the wall in frustration. But when it’s done well, like this, it gives so much scope for the reader to use her own imagination…:D

      Liked by 1 person

  9. For reasons I can no longer remember, although I’ve known about The Picnic at Hanging Rock for many years, I’ve never felt it was a book I wanted to read – you’ve changed that! I’ve visited the Hanging Rock Reserve, it was very hot, and the rocks did have ‘atmosphere’. There’s a visitors’ centre which features information about the story and images (from the film I suppose, I haven’t seen it). I am attracted by the sense of suggestive mystery you describe in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ambiguity is what makes this one so good, although there are also plenty of less ambiguous aspects to it too, so that it has a solid plot trajectory. I loved the film when it came out, and rewatched it after I’d read the book. It is excellent, but it concentrates far more on the central mystery of the disappearance and omits quite a lot of the ripple effect that takes the book onto a different level. I can well imagine the Hanging Rock feeling atmospheric – though the killer insects might put me off more than the disappearing damsels! 😉 I do think you’d enjoy this one – it feels to me like your kind of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.