NO PIC­NIC

What re­ally hap­pened at Hang­ing Rock? Two new books try to solve the 50year-old mystery, writes Julieanne La­mond

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Joan Lind­say’s 1967 novel Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock has gripped the Aus­tralian pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion for five decades. We can’t seem to let this novel go: its spooky, dra­matic and some­times sen­sa­tional tale of the dis­ap­pear­ance of three young women and a teacher af­ter a school pic­nic in the bush is go­ing to be re­told, again, in a tele­vi­sion se­ries from Foxtel later this year.

The novel’s pop­u­lar­ity may stem from the gusto with which it uses gothic hor­ror, in­trigue and sex­ual am­bi­gu­ity to draw on a long tra­di­tion of wor­ry­ing about what the Aus­tralian land­scape (and the peo­ple who live in it) may do to vul­ner­a­ble and out-of-place set­tlers, es­pe­cially women. Its pop­u­lar­ity also has been driven by the fact it is, in more senses than one, a mystery.

The novel opens with a teas­ing au­thor’s note telling read­ers they “must de­cide for them­selves” whether the novel is “fact or fic­tion”. It pro­ceeds as a kind of mur­der mystery that leaves us, ul­ti­mately, in the dark. The mad­den­ing ef­fect of this on read­ers was com­pounded by the fact its fi­nal chap­ter was omit­ted from pub­li­ca­tion and pub­lished only af­ter Lind­say’s death in 1984, still leav­ing us none the wiser.

Two new books about Lind­say’s novel, by Aus­tralian writ­ers Janelle McCul­loch and Helen Goltz, each take the mystery of the novel as their premise: what “re­ally hap­pened” to the girls at Hang­ing Rock in cen­tral Vic­to­ria?

This ques­tion makes no sense for a work of fic­tion but that has not stopped read­ers from har­bour­ing a se­cret or overt de­sire to know what hap­pened to char­ac­ters once the fi­nal pages of the book are closed, or how much of the story is “true”. McCullough and Goltz ad­dress these read­erly de­sires quite dif­fer­ently and with vary­ing lev­els of self-aware­ness.

Goltz’s No Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock is ba­si­cally a com­pen­dium of ru­mour and spec­u­la­tion about the ori­gin of Lind­say’s novel. Its own au­thor’s note states that it in­tends to “pre­sent ar­gu­ments and ‘ev­i­dence’ to al­low the reader to de­ter­mine for them­selves” the truth, or what Lind­say be­lieved to be the truth, about the events of the novel.

The in­verted com­mas are Goltz’s own and are cer­tainly needed. The book in­cludes sum­maries of the novel’s plot and other pub­lished spec­u­la­tions, as well as in­ter­views with Phillip Adams, San­dra Forbes (the novel’s edi­tor) and Anne-Louise Lam­bert (who played Mi­randa in Peter Weir’s 1975 film). This book adds to a size­able body of fan spec­u­la­tion about Lind­say’s novel but it also con­tains glar­ing fac­tual er­rors, such as as­sum­ing Lind­say must have made daytrips to Hang­ing Rock when at school (the school she at­tended moved to the area af­ter Lind­say’s grad­u­a­tion).

McCul­loch’s Be­yond the Rock takes a more promis­ing ap­proach by pro­vid­ing us with the first de­tailed ac­count of Lind­say’s life. It is, how- ever, also framed in terms of “solv­ing the mystery” of Hang­ing Rock: “Talk about a Car­rol­lesque rab­bit hole. The story was now far too in­trigu­ing. There was no turn­ing back.” It does Lind­say some­thing of a dis­ser­vice to frame her life story in this way, when it has more than enough in­ter­est on its own.

This bi­og­ra­phy un­cov­ers much that is fas­ci­nat­ing about Lind­say and her mi­lieu. It re­veals Joan A’Beck­ett Weigall to have been a wealthy young wo­man who stud­ied paint­ing with Fred­er­ick McCub­bin be­fore mar­ry­ing into one of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent artist fam­i­lies — the Lind­says — and then strug­gled to make her own ca­reer as an artist, critic and writer in the

A scene from Peter Weir’s 1975 film of Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock star­ring Anne-Louise Lam­bert

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