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