Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (novel #131)

…history suggests that the human spirit wanders farthest in the silent hours between midnight and dawn.


Hanging Rock is a real place in Victoria, Australia.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is fiction, though in forward note, Lindsay casts some doubt on this point. Hence, the story has become legend and the novel is an Australian classic comparable to Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in the U.S.

For me, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a perfect argument for rereading. I didn’t like it when I first read and reviewed it, four years ago. In fact, I felt cheated.

The story, set in Southern Australia, 1900, concerns the mysterious disappearance of three girls and one teacher from an all-girl boarding school, during a Valentine’s Day picnic to Hanging Rock (Down Under remember, so the height of summer). One of the girls is found, nearly a week later, barely alive, but even though she eventually recovers, she is unable to shed any light on the mystery.

Maddening! No one who ascended crags and crannies of the Rock could seem to remember ANYTHING. So, it’s a mystery. The first time I read this I was hooked, fascinated, obsessed, reading it entirely in one setting, anxious for the solution to the maddening mystery.

And then…Nope! No solution, no clue, mystery unsolved – Cheated!

As I’ve hinted, I had a different reaction with this reread. Two reasons: First, I was not obsessed with getting to the end and was able to appreciate Lindsay’s characters, settings, and dialogue. But, more importantly (still reason #1), when reading the all-important chapter 3 – last scene before the girls disappear – I was reading more deliberately and noticed a few marvelously subtle clues that did after all give a hint to an explanation.

Just the slightest hints…that there was something unworldly afoot. This was a wild-eyed, oh my goodness, no it can’t be moment for me, and I would probably doubt it still, if it were not for reason #2…

There is a missing chapter that confirmed my suspicions. It was in Lindsay’s original version, but excised by the publisher with her consent. I was very pleased with myself that I did not learn of the excised chapter until after I had formed my hypothesis. The 18thchapter, also known as The Secret of Hanging Rock, is available online along with some interesting commentary.

I enjoyed Picnic at Hanging Rock much more with this reread. The 18thchapter is quite bizarre and rather inharmonious to the otherwise realist style of the novel. That was probably Lindsay’s intent. It might even work better, as published without the 18thchapter, and just the subtle hints, but for me – I just had to know if my suspicion was correct, so I’m glad to have the final chapter available.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars



I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: a classic of Africa, Asia, or Oceania.

And in an odd bit of synchronicity, on the very day I finished Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, when my route took me through Hanging Rock West Virginia.

Excerpts:

Although we are necessarily concerned, in a chronicle of events, with physical action by the light of day, history suggests that the human spirit wanders farthest in the silent hours between midnight and dawn. Those dark fruitful hours, seldom recorded, whose secret flowerings breed peace and war, loves and hates, the crowning or uncrowning of heads.

To take a sword and plunge it through your enemy’s vitals in broad daylight is a matter of physical courage, whereas the strangling of an invisible foe in the dark calls for quite other qualities.

It is probably just as well for our nervous equilibrium that such cataclysms of personal fortune are usually disguised as ordinary everyday occurrences, like the choice of boiled or poached eggs for breakfast.

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6 comments:

  1. So glad your reread revealed a better story for you.

    I love the not knowing mystery of the whole thing and, when they published the final chapter in the late 1980's & I read it, I was terribly disappointed to have the mystery solved. I now reread it without the final chapter :-)

    The Peter Weir movie has some cringe worthy dialogue/acting but it also had some brilliant atmospheric scenes with the girls at the Rock (which I have climbed myself by the way).

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    1. Yeah I think I saw a picture of you at the Rock. I watched the Peter Weir movie. It was alright. I don't think I'll watch the new mini-series version.

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  2. I've only read it once and I really enjoyed the ambiguity BUT I knew about the excised ending going in and it was included in the edition I read. What I liked about the book was how menacing "nature" was portrayed. It is very eerie.

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    1. Yes, it definitely has some powerful moments.

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  3. Sounds fascinating/intriguing, especially b/c it appears reader are content even without the mystery solved! Plus, I'm a fan of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

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    1. Some readers are. I was pretty incredulous with my first read. It isn't at all reminiscent of Tom or Huck...I think (we'd have to ask Brona to be sure), but I think it occupies a place in Australian lit...similar to that held by Tom and Huck.

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