Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay has all the marks of great literature. This Penguin Books publication in August 2014 is a 50th Anniversary edition. There is a 1979 movie directed by Peter Weir, a director for; Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Gallipoli, Witness, and Green Card, to mention a few of his films I have seen. There are many other notable Peter Weir films. I was so surprised by his credits; I knew I was going to see the film of this novel. When should I do this, before or after the book? Possibly due to book snobbery, I determined to read the book first. After about five chapters of reading, I was confused. Over to the film. I did not watch the six-part TV series starring Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, Hunger Games) available in 2018. The film left me more confused than the book, although the visuals were pleasant. Back to the book. The film and TV series carry the same name as the book.
I found all this investigating to determine a story meaning a pleasant diversion during my irregular schedule of book review postings. This debut posting is my book review after seemingly endless days of medical tests.
Picnic is a mystery set in Australia. I believe the “a” is incorrect because I found more than one secret with this novel. The first, overriding mystery is what happened to the “disappeared” girls. The disappearance occurs in the first few chapters; readers know this is a central mystery, and reader attention is logically directed toward a solution. A second mystery is about the author and her career. The Picnic was a debut literary novel for a seventy-year-old author; she wrote essays, poems, stories and a memoir of her marriage, but listed her occupation as a painter. Then came Picnic at Hanging Rock written over four weeks in 1966 (yep, she was born in 1896). In a forward, Joan Lindsay wrote “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.” (p.v. in a forward written by Maile Meloy). A third mystery is one of my definition, and readers are free to disagree and consider it a non-mystery. I do not believe the disappearance of the girls is the central mystery; instead, it is an inciting incident to the puzzle. A mystery attached to the writer is one I found interesting, but not primary. There is a third mystery that I believe is strongly hinted at by the author. It is not a spoiler, and I will cite it in a quote. Revealing the secret is not a spoiler, especially since it is only my opinion.
The setting is in Australia at a private girl’s boarding school. Hopefully, the politically correct crowd will leave me alone and not suggest it was a boarding school for young ladies, young women, or some androgynous term that masks gender. Headmistress Ms. A (for Appleby) borders on a disciplinarian resembling a Guantanamo corrections officer. Liberal demerits are awarded the students, followed by sanctions such as hours being strapped to a board or plank. It corrects posture. Subordinates of Ms. Appleby go along with her punishment methods and disciplinary regulations with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and the life of students is miserable. The School is geographically isolated, and the student body is almost uniformly from wealthy parents who don’t have time for their progeny. My reading indicates this was not unusual for the time. Biographies of Winston Churchill reveal some grim family situations.
Ms. Appleby occasionally breaks the routine as she did with an outing to Hanging Rock. There was to be a very circumscribed picnic, as far as behavior goes. Corsets were to be worn, and the girls could only take off their gloves at a time announced by accompanying instructors. All ladies, students, and instructors (and the coachman) were to return to the school by a particular time. Unimportant Mystery One was that near Hanging rock all watches stopped. Minorly interesting, but it did give way to the primary theme prompt. Close to the time for returning to the School, four girls plus their math teacher went exploring further up Hanging Rock. Students Miranda, Irma Leopold, Marion Quade, Edith Horton and Math mistress Greta McCraw will go exploring. Only Edith Horton, the school dunce, will come screaming down Hanging Rock claiming something terrible has happened. Edith then goes into a trance and never reveals what happened. Many days later, Irma Leopold will be found unconscious and remain in a comatose state for a lengthy period. Eventually fully recovered, she will also never remember what happened. The math mistress and two students are gone forever. What happened, how did it happen, and who did it? Readers will not find out the answer to these questions, not in the book, and not in the films. So, what is the mystery?
This next mystery is my opinion almost reinforced by the following author quote. “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.” (p.111). I found this a restatement of the “Butterfly Effect,” or a ripple effect. Everything has an impact (on everything?). Nothing happens in a vacuum. The way Joan Lindsay goes on to give multiple examples is what makes the novel a new classic. Lindsay attended a boarding school; she went to school near the beginning of the 20th century. She writes in the authentic language of the period. For a reader interested in language use, this is a gem.
Lindsay also writes of class conflict as far as economics, but I would not say she writes of female empowerment. Instead, she writes of a class of females, such as Ms. Appleby, dedicated to training young ladies in “knowing their place.” Disciplinary measures provide a grim reading. To reiterate, the language she uses is subtle and fun to read in its indirectness. Math mistress McCraw is seen by Edith as she descents the hill to scream her warnings. Note the language when Edith must report to a police officer what Ms. McCraw was (or was not) wearing.
I was so confused by the novel that I abandoned my usual practice of not reading other reviewer comments. It didn’t matter because I disagreed with most of what I read. Some tried to stretch a point very far to imply some lesbian relationships. While one could argue the point, I don’t believe there were any lesbian relationships, but there may have been deep platonic relationships that mirror the Chivalric code described by Barbara Tuchman in her books about the 1300s and 1400s. Those who insist that everything is about sex make poor conversation partners (IMHO).
Other reviewers criticized the ending. There will always be readers who do not like this type of conclusion. But what about the beautiful use of language and excellent scene imagery? I found this novel of great value and deserving of its classic status. Do I have to mention I gave it five stars?
This novel is listed on Amazon at USD 9.99 and is not available on Kindle Unlimited. I got it for USD 1.99 from Amazon, so I might consider the price I paid another mystery, but I won’t. The vagaries of pricing don’t deserve such a title.
I am proud of my son for sitting down away from the computer occasionally and writing short stories and Haiku. I created a page for his Haiku writing and include a link for those who would like to read the compositions of a seventeen-year-old high school senior.