The Eternal Picnic

Hekla’s Children is released next Tuesday, and I’ve already said a lot in various places about the kind of British archaeo-fantasy-horror that has inspired it (Holdstock, Garner, etc), but less about one particular Australian influence, which might seem a bit weird considering how, well, English the whole jolly thing is.

And that’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay. It seems particularly appropriate given that it was published exactly fifty years ago, and with a new TV miniseries currently in production. (Coincidences are not allowed in fiction, despite the fact that they happen to me all the time.)

Bit of a warning here: this article contains spoilers. If you haven’t read Picnic, do it. It’s fab.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it tells of three students from a well-to-do private girls’ school who disappear whilst on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. It’s fictional, but so compelling is Lindsay’s storytelling that many readers remain convinced of its truth, and there is an apocryphal account of staff at the State Library of Victoria having to turn away amateur researchers looking for old newspaper clippings or records about the incident which don’t exist. Lindsay herself doesn’t seem to have been too interested in dispelling their illusions, and why not? That kind of thing is a publicist’s wet dream.

After her death in 1984, Lindsay’s estate published a final chapter which had previously been edited out of the novel; entitled The Secret of Hanging Rock, it tells something of what happened to the three girls, but the dreamlike and opalescent quality of her prose obscures as much as it reveals. To my mind, the original decision to keep it out of Picnic was the right one – the dark heart of the mystery remains more powerfully the unravelling of prejudice and rationality following the disappearances, rather than where the girls actually went to.

There is a truth here, but it’s deeper than mere historical facts.

It is of course tremendously gothic – from the labyrinthine corridors of Appleyard College, full of shadows and whispers, to the looming volcanic crags and monoliths of the Hanging Rock itself, towering over the plain. Like the Rock, with its craggy buttresses and hidden caves which only reveal their secrets over time (if at all), there is a lot more to this story than a simple gothic tale of mysterious disappearances and repressed passion.

Appleyard College is a place of enforced silence and restriction – where the matriarchal Mrs Appleyard punishes the young women under her care for speaking out of turn, enforces strict rules about appropriate dress and deportment, and even goes so far as to have the unfortunate Sara Wayborne physically strapped down to an exercise bench in the College gymnasium as a remedy for having bad posture. Given the current political climate in which the hard-won rights of anybody who isn’t a white, middle class man are being eroded, Picnic’s continuing relevance cannot be dismissed.

Only one girl returns from the rock: Irma Leopold, a rich heiress. She is rescued by a young and handsome English aristocrat, Michael Fitzhubert, and his groom Albert Crundall. After this it is assumed by everyone that the wealthy young lady and the dashing gentleman will form a romantic liaison – indeed, in the fairy tale world of a gothic narrative this would be the expected and satisfactory outcome. Accordingly, they are thrown together for several weeks after her rescue as she convalesces in the lodge on his parents’ estate, taking many boating trips on the lake, even though she begins to tire of his frequent and fulsome praises of the rough-as-guts Albert. There is an inescapably homoerotic substrata to the relationship between Michael Fitzhubert, described as ‘a slender fair youth’ and Albert, with his thick mop of dark hair and his muscular, tattoed arms. Albert is ultimately rewarded with a cheque for a thousand pounds from Irma’s father – an unimaginable amount of money for a man in his position. He uses this to follow Mike, and they both disappear into the deep north of Queensland.

Irma Leopold’s rescue therefore seems to be of more signficance for how it catalyses other relationships and reveals the latent hysteria in the College. It seems as though once she has been reacted to, her usefulness ends, and she is duly packed away in a carriage to be married off to an unnamed aristocrat and live happily ever after in the margins of the text.

One of the most significant ‘disappearances’ of the novel is that of the indigenous inhabitants of the region - the Wurundjeri tribe of the Kulin nation. There is a handful of references to a ‘black tracker’ assisting in the search for the girls, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, the Wurundjeri dreaming is there, encoded anonymously in the text. At the end, as Mrs Appleyard commits sucide by throwing herself off the monolith and onto the jagged rocks below, she is watched by an eagle and a black spider. The eagle is Bunjil, the Wurundjeri creator spirit, watching over the final resolution of the great ‘pattern’ which was set in motion by the girls’ disappearance.

I find it interesting, though not unsurprising, that the only teacher to disappear is the one who insists most steadfastly on logic, science and mathematics – the dry-as-dust middle-aged Scottish spinster Miss Greta McCraw. She is last seen climbing the rock without her skirt, clad only in her voluminous Victorian knickers, something so scandalous that Edith Norton can only refer to it in shocked, giggling whispers. In the Secret Chapter she changes into a crustacean-like animal in order to better pass through into the Wurundjeri Dreaming – she is in fact the first one to make the journey, with the girls following her lead. So rationality is distorted, transformed, and eventually swallowed by the mystery of the Rock.

Ultimately, everything disappears: truth, time, youth, love, gender, class, race, and reason. All that remains is the power of the land, and our bones in it, and its bones in us. Picnic At Hanging Rock remains for me one of the most evocative explorations of this power, and well worth appreciating anew.