It was 1975 when the movie adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock was released. I was in year nine at a straight-laced Presbyterian-Methodist private school for girls in Brisbane and I did not read Lindsay’s book before seeing the film.
Directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock lodged quite firmly in my psyche. Thanks for this must go in part to the haunting, wood pipe soundtrack, surely designed to buzz inside one’s head like flies around, well, a summertime picnic. I also related to this film and the book on a subliminal level. While both are set in 1900 in rural Victoria, the stitched-up, rule-based existence of the students at Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies resonated with me even in 1975. References to not removing one’s gloves until well out of the public eye and having stockings as part of the official school uniform (in a Brisbane summer no less) were remarkably on the money.
It wasn’t until I heard that Foxtel had produced a six-part miniseries that I ventured to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed novel. Until this point I’d always believed the story to be based on fact, dramatically enhanced of course – but a real story nonetheless. Then I read Lindsay’s own preface stating,
‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.’
Hardly seems important? Let’s just explore that for a minute. There is a reasonable expectation when one starts reading the book, or viewing the original movie, that some insight might be proffered into the mysterious disappearance of three students and one governess of Appleyard College on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Both Joan Lindsay’s book and Peter Weir’s film drip with intrigue and menace, leveraging to the hilt the possibility that this unsolved mystery is based in fact.
However, coming late to the read and discovering direct from the author’s mouth that Picnic at Hanging Rock is most likely a work of fiction, I now think Joan Lindsay was right to say it hardly matters. Whether ‘true’ or not, the mystery disappearance at Hanging Rock really only serves as the backdrop to Lindsay’s often biting observations of (a) the class system in a young nation flush with gold rush cash, (b) the disciplining and grooming of ‘young ladies’ that passed for education at the time; (c) and the ability, or lack thereof, of society in general to deal with the unresolved.
I thought at first that Joan Lindsay was having a shot at the English establishment and, some might say, its undue influence on a far away land coming into its own identity. Take this description of the ambitious Mrs Appleyard, Headmistress of Appleyard College for example:
‘Whether the Headmistress…had any previous experience in the educational field was never divulged. It was unnecessary. With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise….the College, from the very first day, was a success; and by the end of the first year, showing a gratifying profit.’
Here’s another example – an exchange between Colonel Fitzhubert and his fresh-off-the-boat nephew, Michael, with regard to a local young lady of good breeding (if not good looks) who’s in the crosshairs as a potential match for the young English gentleman.
(The Colonel says) ‘I can’t imagine why you’re so critical of poor Angela.’
(To which Michael responds) ‘I don’t mean to be critical. It’s entirely my fault that I find Miss Sprack – how can I express it – too English.’
‘What’s this poppycock about being too English?’ asked the Colonel, emerging from the shrubbery with the spaniels. ‘How the deuce can a person be too English?’
But the toffs aren’t the only beneficiaries of Lindsay’s humorous sarcasm. Edith, the hapless and ungainly schoolgirl who managed not to disappear along with three of her classmates on picnic day, also cops a serve:
The Headmistress, aware of Edith’s limited intelligence and unlimited obstinacy, plus a possible mild concussion, thought the expedition a waste of time…
Then there’s Lindsay’s bordering on cynical assessment of the friendship that develops between Albert Crundall the stable-hand and the aforementioned young English gentleman, Mike Fitzhubert:
To see them now – Albert loose of limb in rolled-up shirtsleeves and moleskin trousers. Michael stiff in garden party attire with a carnation in his buttonhole – they looked an ill-assorted pair. ‘Mike’s all right,’ Albert had told his friend the cook. ‘Him and me are mates.’ And so in the finest sense of that much abused word, they were. The fact that Albert, who had just tried his friend’s grey topper on this own tousled bullet head, looked like a music hall turn; and that Mike in Albert’s wide brimmed greasy sundowner might have stepped from the pages of The Magnet or the Boy’s Own Paper, meant less than nothing.
Apart from the unexplained disappearances narrative, the next most intriguing theme of Picnic at Hanging Rock is Lindsay’s exploration of how fear and wild speculation spreads through the local community and beyond with the speed of a bushfire.
As always in matters of surpassing interest, those who knew nothing either at first or even second hand were the most emphatic at expressing their opinions; which are well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.
Despite Mrs Appleyard’s attempts to keep a lid on gossip and hearsay emanating from the school, the ‘College Mystery’ soon hits the newspapers at home and abroad. Soon, wealthy and influential parents start pulling their daughters from Appleyard College, threatening the very existence of the Headmistress’s lucrative undertaking.
Michael Fitzhubert, instrumental in locating the sole survivor of the vanished party, Irma Leopold, is clearly traumatised and haunted by the whole experience. The Hanging Rock legacy may well ruin his chances of a creating a new life in Australia, free from the shackles and expectations of upper class England.
Indeed, after Irma Leopold is rescued from Hanging Rock the search to unearth further clues about the fate of the other missing women is expanded to cover ‘likely and unlikely places in the locality’:
Drains, hollow logs, culverts, waterholes, an abandoned pigsty where someone had seen a light moving last Sunday. At the bottom of an old mineshaft in the Black Forest a terrified schoolboy swore he had seen a body; and so he had – the carcass of a decomposing heifer.
And now we have the 2018 manifestation of Picnic at Hanging Rock thanks to Foxtel. I’m two episodes into this patently well produced if a little over-dramatised six-ep series. Foxtel’s marketing bumph describes this as a ‘trailblazing reimagining’ of Lindsay’s iconic tale. It’s certainly proving to be a darker, sexier and more ominous take on the original work, complete with wildly embellished and rather twisted back stories of key characters. As if Lindsay’s 1967 story didn’t provide enough intrigue on its own!
For this reason, drawing comparisons between the book and this new TV series are nigh-on useless. It makes more sense to me to compare the contemporary Picnic at Hanging Rock to its 1975 movie predecessor, which was largely faithful to the narrative of the book.
I’m no Margaret Pomeranz but I’d venture to say that the 2018 version can best be described as the screen equivalent of fan-fiction. As such, it completely and utterly swats any vestiges of speculation that Lindsay’s enduring mystery story might ever have been rooted in fact.