Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay


This is the original 1967 version of the novel’s text, its events taking place in 1900, as recommended for dreamcatching by the same source who recommended ‘The Sacred Fount’ (published in 1901) for such a process, one that I completed a few days ago on this site.

How I intend to treat ‘Picnic’ and its later emerging, possibly apocryphal, last chapter will be recorded in the comment stream below…

30 thoughts on “Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

  1. I have not read this novel before. I have long been an admirer of this book’s film by Weir. I shall assume your knowledge of that film and, thus, the book’s plot while I am otherwise commenting upon the text. In the last few days, I have been told there is a chapter by Lindsay that would have ended the book as its 18th chapter, a text that possibly reconciles any difficulties in the original Chapter 3 and alters perceptions of the film’s and the original novel’s ending. The previously missing last chapter is available on-line and I shall read that as the culmination of my review; this is a sort of spoiler alert.

  2. A list of details about its many characters (for those who haven’t seen the film!) is followed by this intriguing note, one that may be relevant to my own long-term reference to ‘the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’:
    “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 hardly seems important.”
    I question the ‘long since dead’…

    • I’ve just noticed today that, appended to the helpful list of characters’ names, is this: “And many others who do not appear in this book.”
      That is an intriguingly strange thing to say and I wonder if it is significant.

  3. 1
    I am relieved to discover the prose is very engaging and as evocative as Mansfield or Woolf. I am confident this is no ignorable text for those who have only seen the film. The sense of place and character is accomplished. I am intrigued anew that the Headmistress has no educational qualifications but by her looking the part, that was half the battle. Not having seen the film for some years, I don’t know if that fact was then implied or as explicit as the book. The famous peeling off of the girls’ gloves. And, like my reviews, the mathematical triangulations of hypotenuse and other sides seeming to echo the coordinates of multi-consciousness reading of fiction, then the ‘angle of vision’ of the sudden appearance of the Hanging Rock like a benighted Hodgsonian redoubt in full sunlight… “…out of the known dependable present and into the unknown future,…”

  4. 2
    “…by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album,…”
    It is remarkable how this exquisite chapter is so utterly the film and nothing but the film, with its own tense timelessness in an Australia where anything can happen, in contrast to a templated England, that I imagine the film came first and this book is its brilliant novelisation! Also, I am impressed how so much has happened so soon in the book as if I am already halfway through the film, but only a tiny bit into the book, in tune with the characters’ breaking watches…
    The Botticelli angel crosses the weir…

    “No, no, Edith! Not down at your boots! Away up there – in the sky!”
    This is an astonishingly satisfying chapter, and I wonder what about it that needs to be reconciled. Time will tell?
    The now unpolitically correct references to Edith’s podginess etc. are telling, and remind me a bit of Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Hmmm. But the rest of this chapter’s monumentality regarding the Hanging Rock is staggering, and reminds me of a phrase that has haunted me for a while: A Dead Monument to Once Ancient Hope. Time again may tell. The scene of the errant girls growing even more errant is, if anything, not just an echo of the film but now something as a remodelled archetype. Proven truth as an isosceles triangle. A ‘deep violet shade’ and ‘long vertical slabs’, as if Heaven and Headmistress are imagined to be colluding to produce this monumentality from words rather than from stills or paintings. Human beings seen by these errant ones as ants… The archetypal film I’ve known for years morphing into a new archetype even as I read on…

    At The Hanging Rock (1875) - William Ford

    At The Hanging Rock (1875) – William Ford

  6. 4
    Woken from a dream about her late husband and a four-poster bed floating in the sea at Bournemouth, the Headmistress, back at the Australian school, proceeds to cheat at a game of Patience. The build up of her eventual anxiety about the lateness of the picnic party’s return is tangible, soon to be hysterical. Mr Hussey’s later report of his search for the missing before leaving the Rock is now a document within the real-time of the events of the story, a sort of retrocausal plot device. I gather that he claims there were no footsteps leading from or to the picnic area’s public toilets. Nor signs of their recent use.

  7. 5
    “…a day of nightmare indecision: half dream, half reality;…”
    The Aftermath. My half-brainstorming, half-reporting the text —
    Workmanlike but provoking matters, such as gossip and rumours, blaming ‘the pranks of destiny’ rather than people, Bumpher’s enquiries and interviews with witnesses (is it important that his name is a combination of ‘bump’ and ‘her’?), some interview evidence elicited from Edith, during a reconstruction at the scene, of a red cloud and the missing mathematics teacher (‘talking wildly of triangles and short cuts’) seen by Edith without her skirt (red cloud and pantaloons connected?), the erstwhile stay-at-home girl now retrocausally seen as ‘a little ghost’ waiting back at the school for Miranda’s return from the picnic so as to kiss her goodnight, Edith’s mild concussion, the French teacher’s migraine, someone’s flat-tyred bicycle… And the now gathered Headmistress, again making show half her battle, writes letters informing the relatives of the missing, including – perhaps significantly for me today vis-a-vis synchronous psycho-seismic suspicions – to parents currently ‘somewhere in the Himalayas’…

  8. 6
    “On a patch of lily pads a single white swan was standing on one coral leg, now and then sending out showers of concentric ripples across the surface of the lake.”
    …which swan turns out later in this chapter to be repeated as an ‘objective correlative’ for a Hooray Henry (not dissimilar to a fin de siècle expatriate version of a David Cameron today in the no man’s land of the tail-end of a UK General Election campaign) and his friend, who, I infer, through their slow-witted nonchalance, instinctively see this swan as a glimpse of some effulgent goal for their helping find those missing on the Rock, of whose disappearance they were the final witnesses earlier Bumphered.
    This novel is a great one, often despite itself.
    “Out at the Hanging Rock the long violet shadows were tracing their million-year-old pattern of summer evenings across its secret face.”

  9. 7
    We follow the Hooray Henry now become ‘hero’ amid (and bolstered by) the wild Australian Nature – an evocatively described, Lawrencian ambiance remade sinuously and intrinsically part of our hero and of the almost Crusader like plot-quest to find the missing or, rather, to save a beautiful Damsel in Distress (cf the text’s link with this man and his chivalrous Agincourt forebear). His interwoven sleeping and wakeful dreams, again half dream, half reality, his inchoate mind, are brilliantly conveyed. I recall little of this in the Weir film, though I am sure at least some of this was in it. But, meanwhile, I am proud to have spotted the premonitory significance of that earlier reference to a white swan when now encountering the musings of our last witness hero re-visualising his sight of that damsel upon the brink of having-gone-missing: “Miranda, tall and fair, skimmed it like a white swan.”

  10. 8
    “Sleeping or waking it made no difference in the dim grey regions where he was forever seeking some unknown nameless thing.”
    With our ‘hero’ no longer the ‘barmy nob’ whom I intimated at earlier, we reach his psycho-seismic territory wherein I am tantalised, like Albert his coachman friend is also tantalised, by a still missing piece of the jigsaw, as I often do with many of the books I happen to choose to attempt ‘dreamcatching’. This is the ultimate Aickman-like dreamcatcher of a book (certainly at least in some of the paper pages of this chapter), with captcha codes of capital letters, and I have just visualised these pages on the trees like flags in a paper chase of direction-triangulation, plus a strange young woman made of paper, too, paper that crackles, and, astonishingly, that white swan again. Oh yes, one of them came back, sans stays.

  11. 9
    The Aftermath continues, with the Headmistress pragmatically, even ruthlessly, dealing with this direly accumulating ‘Situation’ of non-Facts. Artfully – and perhaps, in hindsight, they will have been already accreting toward a meaningful gestalt – there are many nice touches in the text, e.g. “a hedgehog assortment of steel curling pins” on the headmistress’s head; the trip for some senior girls to ‘The Mikado’ (I wondered if this should have been anachronistically to ‘Mary Poppins’!); the crocodile of girls like a female chain-gang; child Sara seeing, in unrequited love, visions of Miranda ‘brushing out her shining hair’: Sara’s “pointed face was somehow the symbol of the nameless malady” of this aftermath’s entropy; the exquisitely characterised Mrs Valange who, resonant with the earlier ‘paper chase’ triangulation, “scribbled on scraps of paper with a piece of coloured chalk”; and “the mice frisking in the long dark drawing-room.” And, as night came down, the poignant atmosphere as each character is itemised against the aftermath’s backdrop.

  12. 10
    I can’t resist quoting the whole of the first paragraph of this chapter, as it seems to encapsulate the nature of the methods of my review itself, as well as much else I am beginning to crystallise in my mind, including the frisking mice and earlier ants!
    “The reader taking a bird’s eye view of events since the picnic will have noted how various individuals on its outer circumference have somehow become involved in the spreading pattern: Mrs Valange, Reg Lumley, Monsieur Louis Montpelier, Minnie and Tom — all of whose lives have already been disrupted, sometimes violently. So too have the lives of innumerable lesser fry — spiders, mice, beetles — whose scuttlings, burrowings and terrified retreats are comparable, if on a smaller scale. At Appleyard College, out of a clear sky, from the moment the first rays of light had fired the dahlias on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day, and the boarders, waking early, had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favours, the pattern had begun to form. Until now, on the evening of Friday the thirteenth of March, it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete. On the lower levels of Mount Macedon it continued to spread, though in gayer colours, to the upper slopes, where the inhabitants of Lake View, unaware of their allotted places in the general scheme of joy and sorrow, light and shade, went about their personal affairs as usual, unconsciously weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole.”
    There is something Proustian, too, about this book, in unrequited love and discrete selves of each person and retrocausal time, here with the further even more intense accentuation of the ‘white swan’ trope (cf Swann), the two references to three o’clock in this chapter (in counterpoint first to the broken Irma and second to the mendable Irma) in romantic interface with our ‘hero’ Mike, and with Albert’s indigo mermaids (cf Albertine)…and the precise timing of the three wooden figures of a Swiss clock (cf Aickman)…

  13. 11
    There is also something old-fashioned about this book, even melodramatic, with homely philosophies and social history, love negotiated rather than wrought, but all this darkened by a force that is perhaps beyond the control of its author. A darkening, say, by the Caves of Marabar from EM Forster or a Mysterious Kôr from Elizabeth Bowen. This chapter’s meal where Mike fails to turn up to pursue Irma is a case in point, polite repartee followed by parting. A miscellany of fly veils, solar topees and walking sticks. A guitar with coloured streamers. The Cheshire Cat. ‘A dead dove sailing past the window like a mechanical toy.’

  14. 12
    OneTwo, OneTwo, alert and sly as the eyes of Normandy hares in their barred cages. One two, one two, one two, one two…the monotonous thumping was inhuman, almost unendurable.”
    Like the resonance in those Marabar caves I mentioned? This is a scene I recall well from the Weir film, a scene that, although powerful, is not as powerful as it is in this text. Irma arrives at the gymnasium, a place from the history of which we are explicitly protected, the gymnasium props like cruel corsets? The thin veneer of civilisation of that social repartee I mentioned is now shattered, while the Headmistress and cohorts (but not all) abased or withdrawn in the face of the girls’ vision of the Mysterious Kôr of the Rock through the Gymnasium walls and the French Revolutionary horror, producing for these girls’ their Lord of the Flies moment, with Edith, like Piggy, in their vanguard, to elicit the truth from Irma. The idyllic coral island now crawling with worms and worse, with all now made into some brainstorming form of death camp? Child Sara self-stigmatised for her angel Miranda? Each at a precise o’clock.

  15. 13
    The ‘Situation’ of non-Facts described in an earlier chapter continues here apace, much like the Internet today, twittering along, as the entropic diaspora of characters slowly grows towards the Easter vacation (celebrating another stigmatisation), even a glimpse of a cleansing fire, an unjust one. All to the backdrop of the deepening characterisation of the Headmistress as some inversion of Graves’s White Goddess, and the inferred ever-there Rock, that Out Stack of the Outback. Weirder than the Weir that Miranda crossed. Wier, or weir, spelling is not Sara’s strength.

  16. 14
    “‘Oh, Bertie!’ she says, ‘your poor arms with the mermaids…'”
    Oh, it turns out here that Albert is the poor speller, not Sara… He receives another counter in the pattern of fate in the form of a letter, that earlier pattern still working itself out from our bird’s eye view, for good or ill, not necessarily justly, but insidiously triangulating and spreading, and Albert’s spectral or dream visit from his sister is as if it is something trying to strain through the veil of that pattern, make sense of it, only connect…as this book makes us do, too. And what of our ‘hero’ Mike’s accretive pattern…? “The swans had disappeared…”

    • I think I know why “And many others who do not appear in this book.” was added to the list of characters’ names at the start. We are all tiny particles (those earlier ants) in the spreading Pattern – configured into this text?

  17. 15
    “Could it be true that the moon actually had something to do with the thoughts and even the actions of human beings millions of miles below on the earth? She could feel the tide of silver light flowing over her sensitive skin. Not only her mind but her whole being was preternaturally awake and aware. She lay down again on the bed but the faint zing-zing of a mosquito hovering close to the pillow twanged on the silence like a harp.”
    Not millions of miles, but millions of human beings? You and I each with our zing-zing as a reader. The diaspora I mentioned earlier is now explicitly called an ‘exodus’. As Good Friday ominously impends. Was Sara’s face described earlier as ‘pointed’ with a ‘malady’, by authorial pointedness? And time is again punctuated by precise striking of the clocks, if the clocks, of course, can be depended upon. The Headmistress a figure haunting the place like a human being. And again we are reminded that mis-delivered letters employ this text. “She sat staring at the heavy curtains that shut out the gentle twilit garden, thinking how few things in life were unmuddled…”

  18. 16, 17
    “She was carrying a black leather handbag and black gloves because I wondered why a person would think of gloves at such a time.” The Headmistress, who now crosses the same creek in ironic contrast to Miranda, shakes a fist at the Rock in psycho-seismic inharmoniousness as, I infer, she suddenly knows what I have long known, i.e. that a Natal Chart should triangulate the Earth as well as the Moon, Sun and other planets at the precise o’clock and place of birth. As well as death? The final tragic scenes of this literarily evocative, darkly poignant, sometimes melodramatic, mostly unmuddled muddle of a book – so well-tuned to the accretiveness of the hive mind and to the wilds of Australian Nature – are themselves triangulated by various ‘independent’ points-of-view, leaving me with a tantalising sense of knowing what happened to the missing girls without knowing at all.

  19. 18
    I have now read the relatively short final chapter here omitted from the final novel. I have not read any of the surrounding material which is presumably about the chapter.
    It is a remarkable piece of writing, whether it is a hoax or a genuine piece of writing by Lindsay with which she originally intended to finish the book. It overlaps,with parts of Chapter 3 in the final version of the novel reviewed above, that I infer was rewritten to cover the loss of this chapter. It is strikingly weirder than anything else in Weir or in the book and reminds me strongly of the style of Aickman of whose work I have long been a fan. I can give it no greater compliment.

    The Pattern forms and reforms around Hanging Rock. Those tiny insects processing. The monolith. A dead monument to once ancient hope, now fitting, for me, perfectly. The text confirms me in my astrological findings above, ‘pulling like a tide, pulling me inside out’. It also gratifyingly and explicitly and serendipitously convokes my own concept of Cone Zero from 2008.

    A raddled clown-like figure in torn camisole and drawers leads them on into the rocks, ‘a long-boned torso’ in resonance with the cast-off corsets. Irma fails to follow because of some tectonic shift. Someone else used the perfect word when drawing this last chapter to my attention: an ending that ‘exalts’. For me it also echoes TS Eliot (as well as loosely connected to something you will remember Miranda herself once saying to the other girls):

    “Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.”

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

    And many other quotes from ‘The Four Quartets’. I suggest (re)-reading it all in the light of the whole PAHR experience, as well as Proust, Aickman, Bowen, Forster, Golding and Woolf.

    I am glad I had, through Weir, the original dark PAHR experience without knowledge of this alternative ending. I am also glad I now have had this new potentially transcendentally liberating experience at a later stage in my life. Death as removal of life’s stays.

    Thanks to Matteo who recommended it to me.

  20. Hauntology seems to have started with “dead dreams of an ancient hope”. I have felt an awareness of such a thing all my life and thought it was just me.

  21. Pingback: THE CHILDREN OF HAMELN: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

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