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picnic at hanging rock
8 march 2021
Joan Lindsay's 1967 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock is a strange, dissatisfying novel – intentionally so, because it is also a highly original novel, and remarkable for how you can't predict where it's headed, despite its assemblage of many conventional elements.
The basic framework of Picnic at Hanging Rock is the mystery-adventure. Four women – three young boarding-school students and a teacher – disappear into the thin Australian air during the title outing. The last to see them are a young English gentleman and his uncle's Australian groom, who have become fast friends on account of being of like ages and temperaments and not much surrounded by society in rural Victoria in the year 1900. When the police prove useless at finding the women, Mike and Albert set off in search of them.
Maybe that's the place to stop summarizing, though, because at that point the novel begins to defy its genres. Among other things, it continually doubles back to become a boarding-school novel as well as a mystery, to concentrate on Mrs. Appleyard's College with its bibulous headmistress, its racy French instructor, its moping natural-daughter-of-somebody, its Irish gardener in love with Minnie the housemaid. A key precursor here is Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), though the novels have little in common except their settings and their arch tone, though Lindsay and Spark are arch in different ways and have different ways of generating dramatic irony.
Hanging Rock today is a more domesticated park than in 1900, but white Australians also have more of a consciousness of it as a place with deep associations for the indigenous people they took it from. If the novel had first appeared in 2021, it would surely be prefaced by the author's acknowledgment of those indigenous peoples, both those who lived where she did (Melbourne, at the time) and those who inhabited the Hanging Rock area.
As it is – and I'm sure this dynamic figures in contemporary criticism of the novel – indigenous Australians barely appear. None is a named character, and the only one who appears tangentially is a "black tracker" (46, 58) enlisted in the search, with no better results than the white police, or the bloodhound who is given more of a role in the novel than the tracker. The tracker never speaks and his search is not described in any detail.
We now think of colonized places – Australia, New Zealand, the Americas – in terms of the echoes of people who lived in them before Europeans did. But Picnic at Hanging Rock deploys a rhetoric of emptiness. Despite the searchers' reliance on the "abo tracker" (64), the narrating voice in the novel conceives of Hanging Rock as a pathless void. "If there ever have been tracks, they are long since obliterated," the narrator says (26); Hanging Rock contains "no signs of any disturbance more recent than the ravages of Nature over some hundreds or thousands of years" (67).
Picnic at Hanging Rock is not much interested in the natural world of Australia, or in the people that it implicitly consigns to being part of "the ravages of Nature." It is about Europeans who have settled what they perceive as an empty place, and done so far too quickly and with far too much importation of their own languages, social structures, and prejudices. The land really was these people's, in Lindsay's fictional world anyway, before they were the land's; and the land swallows them up in a mute impersonal resistance.
Lindsay, Joan. Picnic at Hanging Rock. 1967. New York: Penguin [Penguin Random House], 2017. PR 9619.3 .L49P53