Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - By LOUISE EDWARDS

The story be­hind Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock is stranger than fic­tion.

It was the sort of suit­ably un­nerv­ing mo­ment a fan of the book might have ex­pected to tran­spire when an au­di­ence gath­ered at Mel­bourne’s State Theatre in 1975 for the Vic­to­rian pre­miere of the film adap­ta­tion of Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock. “The theatre clock mys­te­ri­ously stopped right on 12,” says author Janelle Mc­cul­loch, who has writ­ten a new book about Joan Lind­say, the woman be­hind the fic­tional mys­tery.

It wasn’t the first time such a thing had hap­pened. Odd oc­cur­rences and co­in­ci­dences were a fea­ture of the late Joan Lind­say’s life. Lind­say, who wrote the beloved Aus­tralian novel at the age of 69, of­ten re­ferred to clocks stop­ping in her pres­ence. When the film of the story was made al­most a decade later, the set wasn’t im­mune. Co-pro­ducer Pa­tri­cia Lovell re­ported, “All our watches seemed to be play­ing up. Mine stopped at 6pm on the rock… to ask the time be­came quite a joke.”

The story and its haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful film, di­rected by Peter Weir, have be­guiled au­di­ences the world over. Its in­flu­ence has per­me­ated fashion (de­sign­ers Alexan­der Mc­queen and Raf Si­mons of Dior, and ac­tor and fashion muse Chloë Se­vi­gny have cited it as in­spi­ra­tion), as well as film ( The Vir­gin Sui­cides). Such is the tale’s en­dur­ing ap­peal that Fox­tel is film­ing a re­make this year.

The great mys­tery of Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock re­mains. Or rather, mys­ter­ies. For two ques­tions lie at the heart of both the leg­end and its con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­ity: is the story true? And, if it is, what on earth hap­pened to those girls?

In the course of writ­ing Beyond The Rock: The Life Of Joan Lind­say And The Mys­tery Of Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock,

Mc­cul­loch’s research uncovers his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence for the story’s truth, while some el­e­ments of the tale still re­main tan­ta­lis­ingly un­ex­plained.

THE YEAR IS 1900, the lo­ca­tion Ap­p­le­yard Col­lege, a pri­vate girls’ school near Mel­bourne. On St Valen­tine’s Day, the pupils have a pic­nic at nearby Hang­ing Rock. A group of girls go to ex­plore the rock and, along with a teacher, three

never re­turn. One girl is found alive, but can of­fer no clues; the oth­ers dis­ap­pear with­out trace.

Like many Aus­tralians, Mc­cul­loch has long been fas­ci­nated and frus­trated by the mys­tery. She has spent many years sift­ing through ar­chives and in­ter­view­ing de­scen­dants in search of an an­swer. As with any good thriller, the plot thick­ened the fur­ther she delved.

In her research, Mc­cul­loch un­earthed a num­ber of sto­ries that fu­elled her hunch there was more to this mys­tery than a sim­ple tale of fic­tion. She found the fi­nal two lines of Lind­say’s orig­i­nal fore­word, “For the author, who knew Mount Mace­don and the Hang­ing Rock very well, as a child, the story is en­tirely true,” had been deleted be­fore the novel’s publication. Why would Lind­say write this line if the story were fic­tional?

She also tracked down an ex-stu­dent of the school the fic­tional Ap­p­le­yard Col­lege was based on. Now 100 and liv­ing in Lon­don, the woman told her, “We all knew about the girls who dis­ap­peared, but none of us re­ally knew the de­tails.”

“It was then that I found out that Joan’s great-grand­fa­ther was the po­lice mag­is­trate in the area,” says Mc­cul­loch. “So I thought, ‘OK, here’s where she heard the story.’”

Mc­cul­loch then turned to on­line ar­chives and found a doc­u­ment dis­trib­uted to Vic­to­rian po­lice sta­tions at the time. This po­lice gazette de­tailed that a cou­ple of girls had dis­ap­peared in the late 1800s – their ages and de­scrip­tions match­ing that of the novel.

Then, a friend help­ing Mc­cul­loch with research came across the names of two men. Mc­cul­loch is sketchy on de­tails, not want­ing to cre­ate a me­dia mael­strom around their de­scen­dants, but, “My own feel­ing is that two girls were abducted,” she says. “I honestly be­lieve these two men did it – and I have rea­sons for be­liev­ing this – but I don’t have con­crete ev­i­dence. The men knew they were go­ing to be there. The girls were pos­si­bly hid­den in one of the bot­tom­less crevices of the rock.” These ab­duc­tions hap­pened be­fore Lind­say was born. She first vis­ited the rock in late 1900, aged four, for a pic­nic with her fam­ily. She has said this visit in child­hood started an “ob­ses­sion” with the place. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Mc­cul­loch, Lind­say told Martin Sharp, a creative con­sul­tant on the film, that she had “an ex­pe­ri­ence on Hang­ing Rock when she was a very young girl and that it had pro­foundly af­fected her”.

It took Lind­say un­til much later in life to write the novel, which the author claims was the re­sult of a se­ries of lu­cid dreams, wrap­ping a fur­ther layer of mys­tery around this tragic story. She wrote it over a four-week pe­riod.

“Joan was known to be a mys­tic,” says Mc­cul­loch. “Her friends firmly be­lieved she had this ex­tra­or­di­nary affin­ity with the land­scape, and could ‘read’ it like Indige­nous Aus­tralians do, and see things in it that we can’t.”

The rock also has a rich and tragic Indige­nous his­tory. Cor­ro­borees and ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­monies were held there by its orig­i­nal cus­to­di­ans, the Dja Dja Wur­rung, Wu­rund­jeri and Taun­gurong peo­ple, be­fore most died of small­pox, were mur­dered by set­tlers or re­moved to Co­ran­derrk re­serve in 1863. Indige­nous Aus­tralians have long known it as a spe­cial spot, and Lind­say shared that be­lief.

So, did Lind­say “see” the abducted school­girls of the late 1800s at the rock?

Mc­cul­loch be­lieves Lind­say knew a lot more about the dis­ap­pear­ance of those girls, and thinks she did in­deed see things in the land­scape at Hang­ing Rock and Mount Mace­don, things she felt she couldn’t talk about. She be­lieves Lind­say chose to pause her story of Hang­ing Rock at the right mo­ment, be­fore she was tempted to re­veal more. In­deed, there is a poignant line ut­tered by Mi­randa, the “face” of Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock: “Ev­ery­thing be­gins and ends at ex­actly the right time and place.”

THE STORY HAS en­dured for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, but the cast­ing of Anne-louise Lam­bert as Mi­randa in the film proved a mas­ter­stroke by di­rec­tor Peter Weir, with Lam­bert des­tined to be re­mem­bered as the film’s be­guil­ing hero­ine.

“Joan was on set one day, sit­ting qui­etly to the side watch­ing film­ing,” says Mc­cul­loch. “Anne was hav­ing trou­ble with a par­tic­u­lar scene. After dozens of takes, the di­rec­tor asked ev­ery­one to take a break and Anne walked off into the bush, dressed in cos­tume, to com­pose her­self. There, she saw Joan. Joan walked straight up to Anne and took her into an em­brace and said, ‘Oh, Mi­randa, it’s been so long!’

“Anne was stunned. She said, ‘Hello. Joan, it’s me, Anne-louise Lam­bert. It’s very nice to meet you.’ But Joan seemed to be in this other mem­ory. She clung to Anne, cry­ing. Anne be­gan to cry, too. Anne said that mo­ment felt very real; that Joan’s emo­tions were very au­then­tic. Joan re­ally did be­lieve that she’d found Mi­randa.”

Beyond The Rock: The Life Of Joan Lind­say And The Mys­tery Of Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock by Janelle Mc­cul­loch (Echo Pub­lish­ing, $35), is out now.


TRUE ENIGMA (clock­wise from left) Anne-louise Lam­bert as Mi­randa (cen­tre) in Peter Weir’s Pic­nic At Hang­ing Rock; author Janelle Mc­cul­loch has un­earthed new research about the story; the 1975 to mys­tify.

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