Book Review

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

picnic at hanging rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel that I’ve been intrigued by for some time, and I recently managed to sneak this classic of Australian literature in between reading ARCs and my backlist.

It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred.

Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared.

They never returned.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in the year 1900, and sees the young ladies at Appleyard College head out to Hanging Rock for a picnic on Valentine’s Day.  Escorted by their teachers, they are told not to wander off, and yet three young women – Miranda, Marion, and Irma – set out to explore the lower slopes of Hanging Rock.  They are accompanied by a younger girl, Edith, who is referred to frequently as “the College Dunce”, including in the list of characters at the beginning of the novel.  Later, Edith runs back to the main group in hysterics, the other three girls and one teacher having gone missing during the afternoon.

Picnic at Hanging Rock raises a lot of questions around how these young women and their maths teacher could disappear, and it may not suit those who like to have events wrapped up and fully explained by the end of the novel.  While there is an unexpected twist part way through the novel – unexpected by me, at least, having not seen any of the adaptations of the novel or knowing much about it going into it – but very few answers are provided, and the end is ambiguous.  Rather than focussing on those who went missing, it deals more with the aftermath of the events of February 14th, looking at the impact of the tragedy on those left behind.  For the college, concerned parents begin to withdraw their daughters, concerned for their wellbeing, and the staff begin to seek alternative employment.  I thought that this was interesting.  While the disappearances are intriguing, I think that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the wider impact that such an event can have, not just on the immediate families (curiously absent throughout the novel), but on those whose lives might be forever changed by someone they were little more than acquaintances with.

Lindsay makes some astute observations, and I was particularly taken with:

those who knew nothing whatever either at first or even second hand were the most emphatic in expressing their opinions; which were well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.

In today’s climate of fake news I think that this is more prevalent than ever, and I don’t know if it’s reassuring to know that it has always been thus, or disheartening to know that it was the case even before social media made it so easy for every man and his dog to have their say, whatever their level of knowledge.

Going into the novel, I wasn’t sure whether it was a retelling of true events or a work of fiction.  Lindsay was always deliberately vague about the veracity of the novel, and it is written as though it is true.

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide from 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.

The epilogue, for example, is an excerpt from a Melbourne newspaper dated 14th February 1913 – 13 years after the events of the novel, and lamenting the tragedy on its anniversary.  And it has entered into Australian folklore (or so the internet would have me believe!) with the tourist centre at Hanging Rock featuring a statue of Miranda.  Having read it, and having done some reading about it, I’m now much more confident as to whether this is fact or fiction.  I’d hate to spoil that for you though, and like Lindsay, I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourselves.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an intriguing novel that is creepy and atmospheric, and it’s one that I recommend, despite the ambiguity surrounding the events within its pages.


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