by Joan Lindsay
Publication Date: October 3, 1967
Genre: classic, horror, suspense
Project: a century of women
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. . . .
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.