Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Valentine's Day Story

Many of you lovely, library-loving people may have read Picnic at Hanging Rock. But some of you may have not. Picnic was the story of a group of Edwardian schoolgirls from an upper class private boarding school who disappeared while on a Valentine's Day picnic to Hanging Rock, a strange monolith in the Australian countryside. Joan Lindsay wrote it, and then Peter Weir made a film out of it, which launched Australia's film industry and the international careers of many of its Aussie actors.

It's something of a iconic piece now, with everyone from Alexander McQueen to Chloë Sevigny, Claire Danes and Sofia Coppola praising its plot, costumes, scenes and haunting storyline. Coppola hinted that it prompted her film The Virgin Suicides, Sevigny cited the film as one of her favourites and said it heavily influenced her famous fashion sense, while McQueen went as far as basing a collection on it, which was regarded as one of his best. Fashion labels Rodarte and Band of Outsiders have also recently staged Picnic-inspired shows. And it's about to become (wait for it) a musical, which will have its world premiere in New York in 2012.

Here's Kirsten Dunst referring to it with one of Rodarte's Picnic frocks.

Even Design Sponge did a post on it. {Via Design Sponge}

The novel has polarised many people over the years. Millions love it. Some dislike it. The writing is rather unusual but what really divides readers is that fact that the mystery was never solved. The girls and their teacher simply vanished. To add even more drama to the ambiguous mix, the author, Joan Lindsay, alluded to the fact that it might have been true. But then, prompted by her publisher, she clamped up and never spoke about it again. And so nobody knows whether it's truth, or fiction? Or fiction based on fact? Or just a whole lot of clever marketing? Perhaps Lindsay felt that E.L. Doctorow was right when he said: “There is no fiction or non-fiction. There is only narrative.”

I went to a girls' school on the outskirts of Melbourne. One of those sheltered schools filled with daughters of Old Money and the New Rich. (Our family was neither.) It was very much like Appleyard College, only nicer. One day a friend invited me home for the Easter long weekend. While there, she told me her great-grandmother had gone to Clyde College, the girls' school that the story was supposedly based on. Her great-grandmother had loved her time at Clyde, where she'd befriended Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (who was also a boarder – and a friend of Joan Lindsay), worked on the school magazine and joined the photography club. It was this photography club that had embarked on a summer's picnic to Hanging Rock – the first time the school had allowed such an excursion – and it was this photography club that experienced something strange up on the rock. But nobody on the picnic ever revealed what it was. Then Joan Lindsay heard about it. And wrote a novel based on it. Which became an international bestseller.

“A lot of very strange things have happened around the area of Hanging Rock–things that have no logical explanation.” 
–Joan Lindsay, Herald, 1975.

“A great deal of the book [Picnic at Hanging Rock] is based on things I’ve done, 
and seen, and know.” 
–Joan Lindsay, The Age, 1977.

Fast forward almost half a century later. Having been fascinated with this book for most of my life, I started researching the story behind the story. It took a lot of digging. Some people wouldn't talk to me because apparently there's a Picnic curse. Hanging Rock itself is haunted, so indigenous people believe. When I went to the Lyceum Club one day, where Joan had been a member, a well-known society woman warned me off writing it. "The Establishment won't like it," she explained. All of this just made me more determined than ever. Nothing intrigues a journalist more than when a door closes in their face. They'll do everything they can to sneak around the back entrance and find out why.

“The world of Gothic fiction is characterized by a chronic sense of apprehension, 
and the premonition of impending but unidentified disaster…” 
–Ann B. Tracy, The Gothic Novel 

Fast forward a year later. The things I've discovered have been so incredible, I've had to seek legal advice as to whether they can be published. I've been surprised, shocked, astonished and even terrified.  I can no longer think of the story without thinking of W.H. Auden's quote: “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” I can't even listen to the film's haunting soundtrack with feeling a chill up my spine.

And so this is the question I'd like to pose to you, dear friends and readers. A question that has been bothering me for some time. Do I reveal the strange and curious backstory behind this beloved tale? Do I write about the events that led to this famous and fantastic novel? Or do I keep the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock a mystery. After all, it is quite possibly the best mystery of the last 50 years. Who am I to roll this rock away and show everyone what's hidden underneath?

PS All images from the film. Oh – And I love this illustration entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock by the talented PixelPickle as shown as Z Brush Central's site (below).

And if you want to see Hanging Rock, The Age is sponsoring a Harvest Picnic there on Sunday, February 26. Just don't get lost.


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