Joan Lindsey

Gone Girls, 1900 Edition

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsey
Published in 1967

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a small book, only 224 pages, that packs an outsize punch. I can’t remember where I stumbled on it – if it was through blogging or goodreads, or just by following one of the bookish rabbit trails that I find myself chasing when I start looking at books. It’s set in Australia, written by an Australian writer, so it fulfills the category “Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania” for my Back to the Classics Challenge.

It is set up as a mystery – in 1900, three girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, Miranda, Marion and Irma, and one of their instructors, Miss McCraw, disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic in the Australian countryside, at a place called Hanging Rock. Hanging Rock is a real place, a volcanic rock formation in central Victoria.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a true story, but Lindsey presents it as though it is, with newspaper clippings and other bits of ephemera that lend verisimilitude to the story. The book takes off from the disappearance, and follows the ramifications to the school, the headmistress, and the other students.

As the word of the disappearance leaks out, families begin to withdraw their daughters from the school, which leads to the school struggling to stay afloat and creates stress for the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. In addition, one of the girls, Sara, had been in trouble and was not allowed to go to the picnic and her mental health deteriorates rapidly. She disappears as well, although the mystery of her disappearance is solved. One of the girls, Irma, is found alive, but dehydrated and with no memory of what happened to her friends within a few days of the disappearance. She recovers, but is unable to describe or explain what has happened to her friends.

The story is intriguing as the members of the local community grapple with the events and try to understand what has happened. This is not a book that has a neat resolution. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not horror, it is mostly a slim narration of an unexplained, and inexplicable, event that is perfectly satisfied to leave questions unanswered.

Finishing it was, admittedly, a bit unsatisfying and frustrating. I began googling and found information in Wikipedia that suggested that there had been a final chapter that was left out of the book that contained the solution to the riddle. Having now read a summary of the chapter – and I would recommend waiting until after reading the book to do this – I agree with the publishers that the better decision was to leave the ending ambiguous. Because this is a story about what happens after, not what happened before, and it’s fully realized just taking it from that perspective.

The comparison to Shirley Jackson is not perfect, because Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks the undercurrent of dread that Jackson’s best novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, created so perfectly. But she’s probably the best comparison that I can come up with, because that sense of pervasive unease is present all through Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a slim book, but is one worth reading.

Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Series: Kairos #1, Time Quintet #1
Published in 1962
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

I decided to reread A Wrinkle in Time again because I am also going to reread the remainder of the Murry/O’Keefe series and I am one of those people who needs to begin at the beginning. I don’t have anything to add to this review, except that I remain in awe of Madeleine L’Engle’s extraordinary humanity. She was a remarkable woman, and I’m not sure that we deserved her.

I read the book as a child of the 1970’s – probably a bit more than decade or so after the initial 1963 publication, around 1977, when I was 11. I fell in love with the book then, seeing much of myself in Meg Murry, the ordinary, often grumpy, young woman. I revisited L’Engle in 2015, and found that, while some of her books had not held up with reread, many of them did.

This book is part of my personal canon, one of the books that shaped my childhood and had a part in making me who I am today.

A Wrinkle in Time is a bit of a period piece, to be sure. Girls today are stronger, more self-aware, more cognizant of the pressures of an often sexist society, and more willing to buck convention in order to be authentic to themselves. Not all girls, of course, but some girls. Our culture, today, at least struggles to understand these pressures and to acknowledge that they exist, even if we often fail to genuinely confront them.

A few notes on the the DuVernay adaptation from 2018: The adaptation succeeds in a way that, after reading a lot of L’Engle, and a fair amount about L’Engle, I believe that she would appreciate. Casting Storm Reid, a biracial young woman was, as Meg Murry, was an inspired decision, the relocation of the plot to a more diverse location in California, the addition of Charles Wallace as an adopted child, to me really work to illuminate some of the themes that L’Engle was writing about – alienation and dangers of extreme social conformity in particular.

There are parts of the book that are quite different from the movie, of course. In the book, the Murry’s have two additional children, a set of male twins who are effortlessly socially competent. They are capable of fulfilling society’s expectations with little work. Meg, on the other hand, is prickly, defensive, occasionally angry, and fearsomely intelligent – all things which 1963 America couldn’t really cope with in girls. Heck, we still struggle with girls who are prickly, defensive, occasionally angry and fearsomely intelligent.

L’Engle’s central message, as always, revolves around love. For L’Engle, love is the thing that sets humans apart – our capacity to love overcomes darkness, our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for love is what enables us to prevail over our adversaries. This is her spirituality, writ small – L’Engle was a deeply religious woman, and her faith informs her writing always (a fact which makes the presence of A Wrinkle in Time on banned book lists based upon religious objections to the text quite frankly odd).

I am not a religious woman, but the fact that someone like Madeleine L’Engle, brilliant and thoughtful, found a way to integrate her Christian faith with her love of science and her extraordinary tolerance gives me hope that American Christianity can step back from the dark place that it is in right now and find a way forward that is more affirming of the ideals held by women and men like her – that of equality and supporting the vulnerable among us. I can only imagine that L’Engle would have deplored much of what is going on in the evangelical Christian religion related to the persecution of LGBTQ people and the continued embrace of misogyny as a bedrock principle.

A Wrinkle in Time shines light into dark places. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.