‘Everyone agreed the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock…’ [1]

Hanging Rock is famous as an ominous yet enticing character in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The drama centres around the mysterious disappearance of a quartet of schoolgirls, who vanish at the Rock after a picnic on Valentine’s Day 1900.

Lindsay lends credence to the tale by concluding her work with an ‘extract from a Melbourne newspaper, dated February 14th, 1913’ [2], which explores the mystery in detail. This report proves elusive searching digitised Australian newspapers on Trove, but there are other examples. Sixteen schoolgirls, caught by a rising tide following a picnic near Launceston in 1899, were saved, but countless other accounts, such as the disappearance of Lewis Vieusseux during a family picnic in 1858, involved tragic loss.

These stories gave rise to the rich mythology of lost children in Australian literature, bush poetry and art, perhaps best illuminated by Frederick McCubbin’s Lost, 1886.

An oil painting of a young girl in a blue dress and white pinafore, standing at a distance in an Australian bush landscape holding one arm over her face.
Lost, Frederick McCubbin, 1886. Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

McCubbin was inspired by the true account of 12-year-old Clara Crosbie, miraculously found after three weeks missing near Lilydale. The earthy, yellow tones are brittle and mournful, the dark green bush encroaching upon her, like the late afternoon. 

Lindsay, an artist turned writer and former pupil of McCubbin, explores similar themes in Picnic at Hanging Rock – the innocent and vulnerable, threatened and claimed by an untamed landscape. Hanging Rock readily lends itself as the backdrop for Lindsay’s gothic tale. It rises abruptly from the volcanic plain in the Macedon Ranges. Its jagged pinnacles, the signature ruptures of a lava flow phenomenon called mamelon, loom on approach.

Black and white engraving of view of Mount Macedon from the Diogenes Monument 'Anneyelong'
Diogenes Monument “Anneyelong” looking Sth towards Mt Macedon by James Redaway; H13619.

The Rock, or Mount Diogenes, is an Indigenous sacred site within Wurundjeri peoples’ custodianship. It marks a significant meeting place for Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungurung and Wurundjeri peoples, whose country it intersects. [3] The traditional name, perhaps ‘Anneyelong’ or ‘Ngannelong’, has been lost with European colonisation and the consequent deaths, forced relocations and dispossession of the Aboriginal inhabitants. [4] 

A sepia photograph of a large rock formation.
The Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon; H96.160/2686

From the late 1830s, Hanging Rock and surrounding water sources supported pastoralists and then towns, which flourished as stopover points to the goldfields. [5] Local industries grew and soon Mount Macedon boasted stately summer houses for Melbourne’s wealthy.

Black and white postcard depicting two ladies and a man wearing early twentieth century dress standing in front of Hanging Rock
At Hanging Rock, Woodend; H82.254/9/20

Hanging Rock became a popular destination for picnickers. Country race meetings were economically beneficial for the region and notable on the social and sporting calendar.

Black and white photo of crowd behind fence at Hanging Rock Races on New Year's Day in 1910
Hanging Rock Races, New Year’s Day, 1910; H36531/18/132
Ladies in white dresses and hats since on picnic rug in bush, men in suits and hats stand around in background
Hanging Rock Races, New Year’s Day, 1910; H36531/18/136

Raised in a privileged family, Joan a Beckett Lindsay (nee Weigall) attended the renowned Clyde Girls’ Grammar School, echoed by Appleyard College in the novel. She knew Macedon Ranges and appreciated the mystique of Hanging Rock.  The structure of the novel came to her in a series of dreams, forming the perfect setting. [6]

Black and white photo of Marion Boyd Wanliss, Leslie Moira Henderson and Joan a'Beckett as teenagers in school uniforms
Three remarkable women – Marion Boyd Wanliss, Leslie Moira Henderson and Joan a’Beckett Lindsay; H89.267

The novel is famously unresolved; a final chapter with mythological themes [7] was edited from the original manuscript to remove any sense of closure, leaving many readers perturbed. 

The 1975 Peter Weir directed film served to enhance the mystery and fame of the novel.  Hanging Rock stars and the natural world prevails, while symbols of European civilisation face demise. [8]

Colour poster advertising 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' film, features young lady in white standing in front of rocks, looking over her shoulder towards camera. Several other young ladies are in background, also wearing white. Cursive writing underneath reads 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'. Photos of main cast members along bottom of poster
Poster for film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ ; H2007.92/1

Throughout her life, Joan Lindsay implied some details in the novel were real. In the published foreword, she entices the reader with ambiguity:

‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, the reader must decide for themselves…it hardly matters.’ [9]

It doesn’t.

Hanging Rock reserve is temporarily closed, but in the mean-time we can lose ourselves in this classic Australian story.

Postscript

Visit The National Film and Sound Archive to view digitised scenes from the 1975 film. 

References

[1] Lindsay, Joan, 2014, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Penguin, Melbourne, Victoria, p 7

[2] As above, p 188

[3] McConville, Chris, 2017, Hanging Rock – a history, Friends of Hanging Rock Inc, [Woodend, Victoria], p 28

[4] Spiers, Amy, 3 February 2017, ‘What really happened at Hanging Rock?’, VICE

[5] McConville, Chris, 2017, Hanging Rock – a history, Friends of Hanging Rock Inc, [Woodend, Victoria], p 81

[6] McCulloch, Janelle, 2017, Beyond the rock : the life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Echo, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Australia, Richmond, Victoria, pp 143-144

[7] Cunningham, Sophie & Ley, James, 21 October 2013, ‘Australian literature 102: Joan Lindsay: Picnic at Hanging Rock, 

[8] Conti, Chris, September 2017, ‘Did it really happen: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sydney Review of Books 

[9] Lindsay, Joan, 2014, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Penguin, Melbourne, Victoria, p 6

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This article has 5 comments

  1. Winsome Caunce

    Thank you Leanne…A really great post and video on my favorite Australian novel…it seems that there is always something more to learn about the story and its author.

    • It does mater actually. Fear of the bush is promulgated by lack of understanding. We should embrace such places as positive landscapes of worthwhile meaning, natural beauty and diversity and not some fake mysticism.

      • Thank you for your comment Gary, and yes, artistic responses to natural settings cannot be permitted to detract from the importance of respect for the landscape and the true history of Hanging Rock.
        The novel remains to be enjoyed or, equally, critiqued.

  2. Great snapshot of the topic Leanne. A much loved book and movie.
    I have tried to find the final chapter to purchase but cannot locate it. Do you know if it is still in print?

    • Dear Melanie.
      Thank you for your comments. ‘The secret of Hanging Rock : Joan Lindsay’s final chapter’ was published in 1987 and reprinted in 1993 by HarperCollins, but both are out of print. You may find second hand copies available for sale.

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