Hi I’m Naomi Bulger. I’m an Australian journalist and author, and I’m thrilled to be blogging on English Muse. I call my blog “messages in bottles” because I like to discover (and share) little surprises, sweet notes, gifts in the mail, travel tales and treasures uncovered. Today I’m bringing you a literary dispatch from Australia’s collection of urban mythologies.
“Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.” Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
This is the rather innocent start to a haunting Australian mystery that entered our national psyche on the day it was published in 1967, and hasn’t left.
Over Easter, Mr B and I drove past the Hanging Rock of the title, an ancient, monolithic outcrop near Mount Macedon in Victoria and a sacred Aboriginal site, about an hour from Melbourne where I live.
The story goes that on St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls and teachers from Appleyard College embarked on a picnic to Hanging Rock. As the cicadas creaked and the summer heat bore down, all the members of the party’s watches stopped, right on noon. A strange, red cloud hovered over the rock. Everybody but one teacher fell asleep.
When the picnic party awoke, three of the girls were seen climbing, shoeless, further up and into the rock. The teacher was seen making her own way up, alone and dressed only in her underwear. They all disappeared.
The author deliberately left the final chapter – the reveal – out of the original copy of the book, stipulating that it was only to be released after her death. For two decades, Australians were left to speculate what really happened to those girls on that hot summer’s day in 1900, and to try to interpret the clues in the existing text. The final chapter was released in 1987. A schoolgirl myself at the time, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it but, when I did, it raised more questions in my mind than it answered.
I find it fascinating that, although Picnic at Hanging Rock is a work of fiction, many Australians to this day believe the mystery to be true. They search libraries for newspaper clippings from February 1900. The story has entered ‘urban legend’ status. This is strange and yet, somehow, understandable. Lindsay wrote from inside the Australian experience, if that makes sense. And the unanswered mysteries – quite as much as the uncovered secrets – she created in this book still haunt us as a nation today.
I may need to plan a picnic of my own at Hanging Rock. If I do, I’ll be sure to pop back here and let you know what I find.
All photographs are screenshots from Peter Weir’s gorgeous film adaptation of the book from 1975.