Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was first published in 1967 and has since been republished a few times. The copy I read was published by Vintage in 1998. It’s a novella of 189 pages, with a list of characters at the beginning followed by a note, that indicates the truth of the story it tells is in question:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the readers must decide for 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.
On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of nineteen girls accompanied by two schoolmistresses sets off from the elite Appleyard College for Young Ladies, for a day’s outing at the spectacular volcanic mass called Hanging Rock. The picnic, which begins innocently and happily, ends in explicable terror, and some of the party never returned. What happened to them remains a mystery.
I enjoyed it immensely. I love the detailed descriptions of the Australian countryside and the picture it paints of society in 1900, with the snobbery and class divisions of the period. It’s a hot day, the picnic at the base of Hanging Rock shaded from the heat by two or three spreading gums was going well, and while some of the party dozed in the sunshine four of the girls walked to the Rock to get a closer view. As they walked up to the pinnacles and crags the plain below came into sight, but infinitely vague and distant and a rather curious sound was coming up from the plain, like the beating of far off drums. They neared a monolith rising up in front of them and:
Suddenly overcome by an overpowering lassitude, all four girls flung themselves down on the gently sloping rock in the shelter of the monolith, and there fell into a sleep so deep that a horned lizard emerged from a crack to lie without fear in the hollow of Miranda’s outflung arm.
Nobody had noticed that one of the teacher had also left the picnic. The day ended dramatically when one of the girls ran screaming down to the plain, back to the picnic grounds. She had left the other three girls ‘somewhere up there’, but she had no idea where that was. Despite lengthy searches only one girl was found and she couldn’t remember what had happened. It was all very strange. There’s an eerie feeling hanging over the whole event – during the picnic two of the adults found that their watches had stopped at twelve o’clock and they had no idea of the time. It was as though time had been suspended.
It’s a deceptively simple story, but with so many layers and undercurrents, making this mysteriously compelling reading. All the characters are believable people, each with their own backstories, and all their lives are affected and changed by the events of that one day. There’s a dreamlike quality to the mystery and a suspicion of the supernatural surrounding it. I loved the ambiguity of it all.