If you ask me, Joan Lindsay’s Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is a bit of a swizz. Before the story begins, the author plays with the reader, telling us that we will have to decide whether the events recounted are fact or fiction: ‘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 don’t know what the correct term is for the opposite of a spoiler, a piece of information that tells you something that you benefit immensely from knowing, despite the Machiavellian manoeuvres of the author. But I wish I’d known from the start that this is fiction. I steamed through it, in the hope of a revelation, or at least some sort of meaning and closure, but in the end the enigmas only multiply. I thought that the only justification for this was that it was based on a true story. But no! I felt so cheated, to think this was fiction and so frustrating. But as I began to consider the novel, and shook off the grip of wanting to know the answers from my mind, then a different book appeared to me, one more subtle and in fact more interesting than just a cold case.
The story begins with a carriage-load of girls from Mrs Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies setting off with two mistresses – the manly mathematician, Greta McGraw and pretty Mademoiselle de Poitiers – for that oxymoron, the educational treat. They are headed for Hanging Rock, a natural wonder formed by ancient volcanic activity, and a splendid picnic. The day is St Valentine’s Day and a heady atmosphere surrounds them all, after a frenzy of giving and receiving chaste and adoring cards. Up at the front, behind the driver, are the three senior girls, Irma, the beautiful heiress, Miranda, the blonde charmer and Marion, the bluestocking. After the picnic these girls decide to explore the Hanging Rock further, and submit to a rather unappealing girl, Edith Horton, tagging along with them. They are seen on the rock by another group of picnickers, a titled young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert, staying with his uncle and aunt, and their coachman, the macho Albert. But when the rest of the school party realise no one has the correct time and they should really be setting off on the return journey, the senior girls have not reappeared and one of the teachers, Miss McGraw, has also vanished. A fruitless search is organised, but at one point Edith Horton returns, screaming, sobbing and in full blown hysterics, unable to explain to the others what has terrified her so.
The narrative from here on in follows the paths of those who were involved in this fated picnic, particularly the Headmistress, the stately Mrs Appleyard herself, and Mike Fitzhubert and his coachman friend, Albert. All three are desperate for the girls to be found, but their respective fates are not at all what you might imagine. There is no evident moral universe functioning in the novel, which makes it a very strange reading experience. Destinies are meted out with a certain randomness, but the picnic will undoubtedly change many lives. Once I had stopped thinking about the sorts of things that stories usually insist one thinks about – who is saved and who is thrown to the fictional lions, how to account for what happens and what it means – other sorts of patterns drift to the surface. The ridiculous refinement of the young ladies, their corsets, stockings and three layers of petticoats, begin to stand out in curious juxtaposition to the wildness of the Australian bush. And the Valentine’s Day motif steadily gains weight only full of homosexual implications – what is the relationship between the headmistress and the lost teacher, Greta McGraw? What relationships are brewing between the girls and their teachers, and between Mike and the burly Albert? Excessive refinement and repression collide with rough and dangerous wildness. And every so often, a scene breaks through the realist narrative that is menacing and fanciful, unsettling the reader even further.
I read this for my real life book club, which meets tomorrow evening, and I’m very glad I’ll get a chance to discuss it. It is a very, very strange book that becomes weirder the more I think about it. It strikes me as quite funny now, how annoyed I felt that the book messes with the reader so. It makes me realise that I do appreciate fiction for its sense-creating possibilities. But now I’m letting them go, I am becoming more intrigued by what else the story is trying to do.