Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is on all those lists of Australian books you must read before you die. Somehow I had never managed to read it. On hearing this, my friend promptly pulled it off her bookshelf and lent it to me. It is a lovely old copy published in 1970. That makes it older than the movie. It cost $1.50 secondhand and $1 when brand new! The cover is lovely too. It is designed by David Wire.
This book is so iconic in Australia that Hanging Rock has almost become synonymous with missing girls and haunting flute music. Is this book, after all these years, still worth reading?
The back cover blurb:
On a summer Saint Valentine’s Day in the year 1900, a party of school girls from the fashionable Appleyard College at Macedon, Victoria set out to picnic beneath Hanging Rock. Several members of the party are never to return, and countless exquisitely ordered lives are disrupted again and again by the mystery which menaces out of the Australian Bush.
At first, I was surprised at how ‘old fashioned’ the book felt. Not in a bad way. Lindsay’s writing style mimics the style of the era in which it is set, but it is not inaccessible. This makes for lovely sentences and descriptions, particularly of the landscape and natural environment. It is alive with the sleepy and mysterious bush. I think the movie by Peter Weir captured this tone directly from the book.
Lizards basked on the hottest stones, a lumbering armour-plated beetle rolled over in the dry leaves and lay helplessly kicking on its back; fat white grubs and flat grey woodlice preferred the dank security of the layers of rotting bark.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery and I think you have to be living under a rock to not know how it ends. But just in case I won’t give anything away. It is hard to forget the ending when you’re reading the book, but I could see that Lindsay intended you to be guessing throughout. There are subtle red herrings that lead you to momentarily suspect certain characters. It would be nice to read it without knowing the ending!
The biggest surprise for me was the hints of erotic yearnings. The mademoiselle who teaches dancing and french considers her student Irma:
The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes and glossy black ringlets were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.
Later, well-to-do Michael goes to visit his friend, the coachman who was
…lying naked on his bed…the light of the candle whose wavering flame sent ripples of light across his powerful chest, tufted with coarse black hair. Dragons and mermaids writhed and wriggled with every moment of the muscular arm…
When watching the movie, I was never comfortable with the fate of Sara. It seemed so melodramatic. The book gives more flesh to her motives and a tragic believability.
The Headmistress of the school, Mrs Appleyard is marvellously awful. Her actions at the end of the book are terrible but also believable.
I recommend Picnic at Hanging Rock. You should read it before you die. You should probably even read it before the new television series this year.