The Great Australian Mystery: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is an Australian Classic, and is a perfect example of a murder mystery, or is it? I say that because, we never really find out whether or not anyone has been murdered. Perhaps they just stumbled off a cliff and died because of that, there may not have been foul play at all. And I think the open ending of the book adds to the mystery and intrigue surrounding the novel. Add to that Lindsay’s reluctance at confirming that it is a complete work of fiction, or whether or not parts are based on fact. Because it can feel, in the way she has written it, that perhaps there is some element of truth here, that maybe this is real. And if so, that just adds to our curiosity and appetite to find out what happens. And when we don’t find out, that makes us hungry for answers, so we discuss with others and that gets the word out about the book. It’s quite clever actually, because then more people will buy the book, and then more will want to discuss it, and that is what a successful book is all about.Personally I’m a bit of a contradiction here, I find ambiguous endings so infuriating, I just want to know what’s going on! And yet, when I tend to write myself, I inevitably have plenty of suspenseful endings, which infuriate those who read it. So I guess I really do like these sorts of endings, because that emotion you feel, in wanting to know more, is something good. It shows that the author has created a story that you actually want to know the ending of. If there’s an ambiguous ending, and you don’t want to know more, or don’t care, then obviously it wasn’t a very good book.

What amazes me is that this book was apparently written over the space of only four weeks! Like honestly, that’s pretty damn good turn around! And I think the book is so polished, and wonderful, so the fact it was written in 4 weeks (sure there’s editing afterwards, which apparently had a major impact, more later) just impresses me more. And it’s definitely an Australian story, so I’d be interested to know how people who aren’t Australian relate to the book, or what their thoughts are. I guess it’s just like me reading The Great Gatsby, where I couldn’t really relate to the “American-ness” of it.

And despite it being set in 1900, I didn’t find it that grating an experience like Pride and Prejudice, potentially that’s because it was written in 1967, so it still is modern, despite being set in a very different time, especially for Australia. It is very telling just how untamed the Australian bush is at this time, and how the English immigrants really seem discordant to the bush. Like, they are going around in large petticoats and dresses, and wearing gloves and hats, when it’s the middle of summer! That’s definitely not very appropriate attire for such a climate.

I really did enjoy this book, at a few points there were weird changes in time which made things confusing, but I think that was the intent. For example when Edith wakes up, or when Mike runs through the bush after thinking he found something. The confusion of the characters is reflected in the confusion of the prose. The storyline wasn’t confusing though, and I quite liked the style of presentation that at times felt detached and journalistic, adding to the hint of fact of the story.

As I mentioned above there was an interesting editorial decision. There was in fact an 18th chapter, which was later published as The Secret of Hanging Rock, which apparently solves the mystery once and for all. But from what I have read it was quite unusual, and feels quite out of place with the rest of the novel. For it deals with Miranda and the other girls, who met up with Miss McCraw, and they throw off their corsets, after feeling ‘pulled inside out’. The corsets appear to float caught in ‘time’, and Miss McCraw suggests they ‘go on’ into this weird almost spacetime continuum disturbance. Then a ‘hole’ appears, and it answers life’s questions, and then Miranda, Miss McCraw and Marion of them transform into animals and enter the hole, leaving Irma outside of it, when a boulder seals it off, and Irma is left alone. I guess it makes some sense with Miss McCraw being the mathematics teacher, so perhaps she went for a walk since she had calculated something (because didn’t she find something ‘interesting’ about the Rock) or figured something out. And she seemed to be in a hurry when Edith described her later. But such a supernatural thing would have lessened the original book, and I don’t think it would have been so well regarded to be honest. The hanging mystery of the current ending is really more satisfying. The weird hole brings up more questions than answers, despite it being ‘the answer’ (also shows why they couldn’t find anyone, but why didn’t they find Irma????). And it just seems so unlikely in such a ‘real world’ book.

So I’m really happy that they didn’t include that extra chapter. What do you think, would the book have been the same if it included this? Is it one of the best Australian books? Is it a perfect murder mystery? I wouldn’t quite say that, I think it’s a very fine piece of literature, and was something that was enjoyable and interesting.

4 thoughts on “The Great Australian Mystery: Picnic at Hanging Rock

  1. Hi Daniel, You’ve written a great review which I enjoyed reading. A favourite of mine, I’ve done some outside reading on Picnic over the years which might be of interest.

    Firstly, the eighteenth chapter was never intended for publication; it was edited out prior to publication with the mutual agreement of Joan Lindsay and her publisher. One of her editors, Sandra Forbes, had reported that, “Joan was never really happy with it.”

    It was only marketed posthumously as “The Secret of…” by the person who held the rights to it, John Taylor, which perhaps afforded it a little too much attention, given its prior standing as simply a discarded chapter.

    Lindsay’s comments in a 1974 interview actually demonstrate that her thinking on how it occurred had become more sophisticated than those expressed in the 1967 chapter.

    Veteran ABC broadcaster, Phillip Adams, was a close friend of Lindsay’s and once wrote that:
    “Picnic at Hanging Rock should be read as a piece of horse-drawn science
    fiction, pitched somewhere between the mysticism of a Forster and the
    quasi-scientific speculations of an H. G. Wells.”

    While many have proffered that it’s plot has forensic or extraterrestrial undertones, the ‘truth’ is not so much ‘out there’ but closer to home. Lindsay’s own aversion to Time and time-keeping holds the key to understanding the disappearance of her characters.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I’m not surprised that it was never intended for publication, because it seems so weird, and I guess what was published was really in draft form anyway. So what’s your theory on what happened at Hanging Rock?

  2. Joan Lindsay actually tells us in her interview. Time, for her, is circular and ‘all around’. The past, present and future co-exist. Her characters didn’t vanish from a location – they were lost in time.

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