Apr 10, 2012

by English Muse

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.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 at 6:00 pm. It is filed under Books, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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34 Responses to “Antipodean dispatch: Picnic at Hanging Rock”

  1. Luli says:

    Wow, the photos are amazing. I have never heard of this book and I really want to check it out now.

  2. Naomi says:

    Luli you should look for it (probably on Amazon), it’s amazing and so haunting.

  3. look see says:

    I know that as a kid I believed it was a true story, until I read the book for the first time. I remember being quite disappointed at first, but I still loved the story. I’ve re-read it more times than I can remember. I’ve also spent a lot of time with the film, either through study or just because it’s hauntingly beautiful. Thanks for this post! 🙂

  4. Naomi says:

    I felt the same way. I think we all so badly wanted the story to be true… maybe that’s why so many people hang on to that theory. Have you read the final chapter? I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it. At the time, I read it and went “what the?” But now I think I was misinterpreting the genre: the book may have been set in 1900 but it was written in the 1960s, with a 1960s mindset. Maybe I’ll try it again.

  5. Wendy says:

    Now you have me really fascinated! I remember this movie so clearly for being very beautiful, but very creepy. I didn’t realise it was fiction, I always thought it really happened. I didn’t know about the final chapter either. Now I’ll be going on the hunt to find out more about this intiguing story! xx

  6. Rebecca says:

    I have heard so much about this film, and each time I always think that I really need to watch it, but I still haven’t. Feeling freshly inspired to finally check it out!

  7. look see says:

    I’m not terribly sure if my well-worn copy had the final chapter? It’s currently in storage at my parents’ house. I can see I’m going to have to dig it out next time I visit them!

  8. Naomi says:

    Wendy let me know what you think when you’ve read the final chapter. I’m going to hunt it down and re-read it myself. When I read it as a child, it was so different to anything I’d expected that I actually thought it was a hoax!

  9. Naomi says:

    I hope you enjoy the film. It’s one of those that the critics call “slow by today’s Hollywood standards,” but it is certainly eerie and beautiful at the same time.

  10. Naomi says:

    I don’t know of any editions that include the final chapter… I’d love to get my hands on one if it existed! Here’s a link to the published final chapter the way it looked I used to own it (wish I hadn’t lost it): http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com.au/2010/06/forgotten-book-secret-of-hanging-rock.html.

  11. Jane Williamson says:

    Hi Naomi, love your piece on Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’ve had a copy of the DVD with me for several years in several different countries. I once showed it to a bunch of people (not Australians) and they just found the movie slightly annoying and unsatisfying. What happened????? they wanted to know. And why all the implied lesbianism (that was new to me, I’d never noticed it before!!!) There’s no tidy resolution and to me this film is one of the great Australian landscape films that show this incredibly ancient landscape of Australia sometimes just swallowing up the fragile recently arrived inhabitants, especially those urgently trying to recreate a tidy British world on the surface of a deep ancient land. I’ve been watching this film for so many years but only recently noticed all the aboriginal imagery in it – the craggy faces in the rocks and all that. It’s just gorgeous, gorgeous.

  12. Congratulations Naomi! Love what you wrote about it, and the gorgeous pictures. I must say that the movie haunted me as a teenager… and I haven’t dared watch it again since. I think I’ve recovered now… and would love to discuss that final chapter with you. I live not far from Hanging Rock – shall we go on a picnic one day?

  13. Naomi says:

    Jane you are so right. Since writing this piece, I have been pondering just how many pieces of Australian literature are really all about our landscape. It’s like the landscape is the story and we merely crawl across the surface. Then someone else wrote this, which I thought was incredibly insightful: “It also ties in with the tension between Aboriginal and British Australia that is clear throughout the book. The girls somehow succumbed to a magical, yet natural Australia, and were forever lost to their schoolmates possibly within a remnant of lost aboriginal ‘dream time’.”

  14. Naomi says:

    Deb I’d love to! I think I need to see the Hanging Rock of today, find out what the energy really is. Let’s arrange a winter picnic.

  15. Vicki Archer says:

    I loved this movie… such a haunting piece from Peter Weir. Thank you for the reminder to re-watch this… xv

  16. Naomi Bulger says:

    Thanks Vicki, glad to help 🙂

  17. Martin says:

    It is also a favourite of mine; I also studied it at school and have come to appreciate its beauty over time. I was surprised to discover that it has actually inspired a 2010 sequel, a novel called “Dream Within a Dream”, which articulates with Joan Lindsay’s story. It’s quite a sensitive piece of writing.

  18. Naomi Bulger says:

    I’d never heard of that Martin, thanks for the tip. I’m going to go looking for ‘Dream Within a Dream.’

  19. Mary says:

    Ooh, I really did think it was a true story when I first read it! My copy is one of the wee orange Penguin classics, found in an opshop on my travels through Australia- you’ve made me want to re-read it and see if I have the mystery ending! 🙂

  20. Naomi Bulger says:

    I love the orange Penguin classics. And I’m thinking I might need to track down copies of the final chapter just for this little group!

  21. Pamela says:

    Have seen it many times and still enjoy its haunting mystery and soundtrack and the beautiful cinematography. If it’s possible to say that a film can be perfect in its own way, I believe this one is. When we lived in Colombo years ago we screened the movie in our garden after a dinner party to an audience of invited guests who were all completely charmed and intrigued. One of the Japanese diplomats present told us that it was the best film he’d ever seen – he was so enthusiastic it was clear that he wasn’t just being polite.

  22. Naomi Bulger says:

    Wow what an incredible response Pamela! Have you read the book? I’d be interested to know how you felt the one compared to the other.

  23. Hi Naomi, A new reader to my blog kindly told me about your site. I’m an Australian journalist who has spent 6 months researching Joan Lindsay and the background behind the story. I did it because it went to school with a girl whose great-grandmother had known Lindsay and she told me that the author had told her great-grandmother there was more to the story than she ever let on. There is, in fact, a great deal of truth to the story, as I’ve discovered from trawling through boxes of archives and interviewing those who knew her. It’s a terribly eerie, terribly sad story, but because it involves so many famous Australians from the early part of the century, I’ve now had to re-write the book in fictional form! Of course the novel is fiction – there’s no doubt of that – but there does seem to be a lot more truth to the story than most of us believe.
    But I found the comments from your readers really interesting. And I love your blog! Janelle McCulloch

  24. Hannah says:

    sounds like a brilliant book, I’ll definitely have to look out for it!



  25. Pamela says:

    No, Naomi. Haven’t read it. Found the film so interesting, intriguing and haunting (the word that’s so justly associated with this movie) that somehow haven’t been able to bring myself to read the book – probably I’ve been worried I’d be disappointed. But guess now I should do so, having read all the interesting material on your post and on Janelle’s blog.

  26. Naomi Bulger says:

    I totally get the fear of not wanting to ruin a good film by reading the book, or a good book by watching the film. If you do decide to read it, I’d love to know what you think!

  27. Naomi Bulger says:

    Oh Janelle, this is so fascinating! I can’t wait to read your book… almost like the NEXT chapter in this story that we all find so compelling (as all the incredibly insightful comments on this post show). And thank you for the compliment on this blog, although sadly I can’t take the credit. I’m just a guest blogger on English Muse, but it’s one of my favourite blogs on the Internet, so I love it too! Now I’m off to read yours.

  28. Dizzy Lizzie says:

    This is amazing! Discovering new things is always awesome! And the quote that you started with is so haunting… 🙂 Lovely.

  29. I too was fascinated by this story, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the final chapter. I think leaving the final chapter out is what really made the book. Like you I was left wanting to know more, and I also wished the story was true.

  30. Martin says:

    It’s very interesting to hear of your research, Janelle. I did read Joan’s “Time Without Clocks” and it is quite clear that some of her life experience was incorporated into Picnic. Philip Adams was a close friend of the Lindsays and he has been interviewed over the years numerous times about her life. She seemed an enigmatic person in some ways, but also delightful and charming. What a legacy she has left us! I had the pleasure of visiting her home – Mulberry Hill – earlier this year and the National Trust have left it looking as if Joan and Daryl had just stepped out for a moment. It is certainly frozen in time – just the way Joan would have wanted it, no doubt.

  31. Martin says:

    There is some evidence in statements from her publisher’s editors that the eighteenth chapter was not ‘withheld’ by Joan with a plan to release it and complete the mystery posthumously, but that it was simply a decision of editing, which with she was in accord, as she was ‘unhappy’ with it. As such should it be regarded as part of Picnic? Perhaps not, as this is a normal process in drafting and editing. Perhaps too much credence has been afforded this chapter.

  32. Martin says:

    I found the website at http://www.mobiuspublishing.com.au and also some background information on Facebook – it has some nice photos of the place.

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