The Bush Bites Back

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.

If you go down to the rock today....

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.


35 thoughts on “The Bush Bites Back

  1. Sounds like a perfect book for a book club! Lots to discuss, and it’ll be interesting to find out if the other readers felt similarly messed with 🙂 I like the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Does sound a lot more interesting than just a cold case.

    • The other readers did feel messed with! It was a really interesting meeting, and I felt we had reacted more coherently than over some books. I think we all like a little blurring between fact and fiction, but it’s a fine line that authors tread – and readers get mad when it’s crossed by too much!

  2. I had a similar experience reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman last month; great for book club discussion, since there is no firm ending to the book, but a bit frustrating for the reader.

    • Oh I remember the endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman! Actually I confess I really loved that book. But I know what you mean about the ending – it does remove any possibility at all of fixing meaning and that can be really frustrating. I should suggest it for our book club one day!

  3. Well you have certainly intrigued me with your description of this one and it does seem the perfect book to discuss at a book club.

    • It made for a great discussion – or you could add it to your films watched with your son! Apparently lots of people really like the film version.

  4. After looking up what the word ‘swizz’ means 😉 I have a question in mind. Have you ever quit reading a book? And, if it’s not for a real life book group, ie, commitment of some sort, when you encounter a book that you find disappointing, would you have just left it without finishing? Just wondering… But as Andrew said, this might well be the kind of books that’s good for group discussion. 😉

    • I do abandon some books, Arti, but my weakness is suffering. If there is too much of it, too brutally dumped on the reader, I have to give up. I read half of Wandering Star by Nobel prize winner, J M G Le Clezio, about the plight of Jewish refugees and just couldn’t get to the end. Way too bleak and depressing for me. Pretty much everything else I’ll get to the end of and I try not to give up on books if I can. I know there is just this particular category that I can’t get through! Oh and I do hope you enjoy using the word swizz – so very useful at times, I find. 🙂

  5. I started to read your review yesterday but then I had to look up the word “swizz”. I had never heard it before. I’m back finally.
    I have never dared reading this book because “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is my favourite movie. I’ve seen it for the first time when I was about the age of the girls in the movie, or younger even and it satyed on my mind ever since. I have re-watched it several times and every time I see more complex things. I’m not even sure if references to Aboriginal belifes are in the book but there are some in the movie. I loved it for the mystery, I don’t want to know why they disappeared, it makes more sense not to know it. It’s a sensual movie, and the stark contrast of the clothes and the bush is amazing.
    Maybe I should read it but I wouldn’t want to discuss it.
    I think you would like the movie. It’s very hypnotic. Just don’t watch the directors cut. For weird reasons it’s shorter and some of the bets scens are missing. It was one of Peter Weir’s early ones, when he was still fantastic, and not in Hollywood.
    How is the writing? She isn’t much of a stylist, is she (just a hunch)?

    • Mister Litlove has seen the movie, although I never have. I imagine it does take the best elements of the book and use them in ways where the mystery and intrigue work much better. At book club some of us felt that the notion of Aborgine dream time really unlocked the book and I think that the mere mention of Aborigine beliefs would have given us enough of a clue to be happy with the unresolved nature of the story.

      You’re right, the writing isn’t particularly stylish – it’s the story that the reader is reading for.

  6. My book group read this a couple of years ago, and we enjoyed tearing it to shreds… I was so annoyed at the inconclusive ending, and the rest of the writing didn’t help, for me, I’m afraid. THEN I went and found the final chapter (which was in Lindsay’s original draft, and cut at the – rather wise – instruction of the publisher.) Shall I spoil it for you? Well, stop reading if you like! Lindsay had intended the events at Hanging Rock to be included: time stands still, the girls turns into insects, and crawl into a hole in the rock. Utterly bizarre.

    But I should see the film sometime…

      • This reply is to Catie – and the other reply here to Simon. Sorry – this new format catches me out sometimes!

        It was very interesting to read the alternative solution – it has the effect, I found, of explaining a magician’s trick. I read it and said, oh, that’s so possible and so prosaic. I can’t imagine what it would be like to read this when young, though. I think I would have been really upset!

    • I confess I did go on a search for Chapter 18 when I found out it existed. Complete madness!! But then at bookclub we thought that if the ending had been kept, crazy as it was, we would have had to turn to the supernatural elements that Lindsay obviously believed strongly in to understand the story. And then we could at least have understood the story! But there was a fair amount of pretty enjoyable shredding in our meeting. I don’t know why that is so much fun, but it is. 🙂

  7. This sounds like an interesting read! I wonder, is there any connection or reference to Forster’s A Passage to India? The scene you mention where Edith comes screaming back from the rock reminded me a lot of the fateful episode in the Marabar caves where Adela Quested (also a schoolmistress, incidentally) runs screaming out in terror but is unable to explain what actually happened. Perhaps the link is too tenuous, but I also find it interesting that both incidents should have occurred in British colonies, far-off lands characterized by their somewhat brutal beauty.

    • Miss Darcy, I too thought of “A Passage to India” and how it is never revealed what exactly happened in the cave, if anything.

    • I haven’t read A Passage to India (although I hope to this summer). The link was discussed at our book club by those who knew the work and said that they are very similar. It works for me, as I think the novel is about the conflict between primitive and ‘overly’ civilized society overlapping in deeply uncomfortable ways and releasing uncontrollable repressed emotions. Anyway, thank you for the heads up – I love Forster and really want to read all his novels.

  8. It seems you have given many of us a vocabulary lesson and a book review today 😉 The book sounds intriguing and your initial response of annoyance was interesting too. Glad you were able to enjoy it in the end. I hope your books group discussion went well. I bet everyone had lots to say about it!

    • Lol! I will have to see how many more archaic slang terms I can dredge up! 🙂 Book group was really interesting – I do love a good book discussion and it’s a great way to rehabilitate the frustrating novels!

  9. I have never read or seen this, but the fact/fiction concerns sound interesting and given all your studies into modern ideas and philosophy I was a little surprised that you did not like its indeterminateness. Civilisation and the untamed is always interesting and I see links to A Passage to India mentionesd above and I thought of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hope the book group produces lots of insights.

    • Yes, it’s funny isn’t it? I am a fan of indeterminateness on the whole but this was not a satisfying kind of open-endedness. It felt like… it’s hard to say, but it felt like there ought to have been an ending. Have you seen Stuart’s comment below? He sums up what we ended up thinking. That if the mad and unacceptable final chapter had been included, we could have understood the book. But without it (and it’s easy to see why it was supressed), the book was better, but missing something. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another book I’ve never read, and I admit, one I have no desire to read. But I am probably doing it a disservice?

  10. I must go dig through my piles and find this–I have owned it for ages and now you have me totally intrigued. I thought it was a true story–or a novel based on a true story, too. You’ll have to let us know what your book group thought of it–in a weird way I like books that mess with your mind (I say that now not having read it, though…). Must go look up swizz, too, and I thought I was pretty good on slang! 🙂

    • I’m so glad it’s not just me who thought it was a true story! One other person at book club thought so, too, so I had a little company! There was quite a strong consensus that the book was very frustrating in its inconclusiveness, and we did spend quite a lot of time thinking about how to make it cohere better. Uselessly, of course! But some of us agreed that the idea of Aborigine dream time really helped to make some sense of the novel. Once we thought of it as a supernatural story, it worked a lot better.

  11. This was one of my absolute favourites when I was a kid – I just loved it. The film version was pretty creepy, too – though after reading your review, I do wonder how each would stack up now I’m a grown up… I wonder if the swizziness would grate on my nerves now?!

  12. It’s a swizz! Not heard that expression in years! Did your opinion change after book club? Mine did. The issue of whether it was real or not didn’t bother me, but I couldn’t see what the author was trying to say. Why did she write it? I must say discussing it at “real life book club” did change my view for the better. Why? Mainly because I realised as we discussed it that the last chapter that was removed from the published version is key to what Joan Lindsay wanted to say about time, society and her mystical understanding of Australia. So in some ways I agree the novel is a swizz because the published version is incomplete!

    • Yes, this is very much how I feel about the book now. The idea of Aborigine dreamtime really helped me to get to grips with the book. As you say, it’s not about whether a story is real or not, or even resolved or not, if you can find a way to understand what its essential underlying meaning is. Without that final chapter, it’s not possible at all. I think the final chapter could have been used, if there’d been some editing in the early stages of the book – but that’s just my speculation!

  13. I haven’t read the book, but have watched the movie a couple of times. One of my favourites of its genre, delightfully creepy.

    • I can see I really ought to watch the movie – it seems to have made a much better impact on its viewers than the book did with its readers (of my book club at least!).

  14. I love this book AND the film. I loved them very much as a teenager and have read and watched them multiple times. I’ve even got my grubby little hands on the last chapter!
    But then, I’ve never been particularly bothered by stories where nothing happens and nothing resolves and where I don’t quite understand them …

    This is so full of all the kinds of weirdnesses early federation Australia had – the clashes of Britishness with Australia the actual place and its first / Indigenous / Aboriginal peoples, repressive society, issues of class (issues Australia tries to disclaim but that we so clearly have!) and so on. I’m really intrigued by your perspective on this, and your book club’s too. Wish I could have been there to hear it all! You have picked up on the mysteries and the questions Joan Lindsay raises!

    There is also the context of the Lindsay family and their approach to Australian culture (Joan is wife to brother of Norman Lindsay and the whole family were artists and writers and other culture-makers) and in Picnic, Joan is clearly critiquing Australian repressiveness, staidness and also critiquing gender relations.

    If you can bear it, Joan Lindsay’s autobiography, Time Without Clocks is wonderful and includes a chapter on Picnic. That might shed some more light for you (if you want more light shed!)

    And yes, you should watch the film. It is glorious.

    Sorry for the long comment. I just got all excited. And you needed an Australian’s perspective 🙂

  15. Pingback: May Reading: Marilynne and Muriel | semi-fictional

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