Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Reading group: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Halfway through our discussion of this book, Jenny commented with a shamed grin: 'Isn't it awful how in this group we take famous and respected novels and tear them to bits?' We approached Picnic at Hanging Rock with the knowledge that it is considered one of the great books of Australian literature, but by the time we came to the meeting, we were all pretty much wondering how it could have achieved such status.

In fact, it is important from a thematic point view. Published in the late sixties and set in the year 1900, it concerns the unresolved disappearance of three senior boarders from Mrs Appleyard's College for Young Ladies, along with one of their teachers, while on a picnic trip to the mysterious Hanging Rock, the distinctive geological formation in central Victoria. The school, and the neighbourhood in which it is situated, with its English-suburban-type gardens, are the seat of a colonial mentality that has no understanding of the wild land outside its own boundaries, a land believed by its indigenous people to be alive with spirits of its own. Under the influence of the hot day and the surroundings, the schoolgirls on the trip unbutton the civilised trappings of their gloves, and four of them wander too far from the designated picnic site and onto the rock. As the three elder girls climb, seeming to be overcome by some dream-like state, the youngest, Edith, the 'school dunce', becomes frightened and runs back, seeing in the near distance as she does so their teacher stumbling upwards through the bracken minus her skirt and in her pantaloons. By nightfall none of the others has returned to the picnic site and searches of the rock have failed to find them. Over the next days, further attempts, including a search by an indigenous tracker, fail in the same way. While the school party had been picnicking, another group had been picnicking nearby, Colonel and Mrs Fitzhubert and their nephew from England, Michael, along with their coachman. As the four girls walked towards the rock they passed this group, the coachman wolf-whistling, and Michael falling instantly in love with one of the three senior boarders, Miranda. Consequently, after all the official searches have failed, Michael makes a lone trip to search the rock for Miranda, only to be found unconscious with a broken ankle and mysterious scratches, though not before having laid a trail that leads his rescuers to the slumped, unconscious and bloody body of another of the missing girls, Irma. Later the narration will tell us that Irma is no longer wearing her corset, a fact overlooked by the Fitzhubert's housekeeper who puts her to bed to recover in their house. Afterwards, neither Michael nor Irma will have any memory of what happened to them, and the other two girls and the teacher will never be found, which will lead to the ruin of the school.

In retrospect all of this can be read as the undoing of the fabric of colonial civilisation by the forces of Australian nature. We didn't however find that this message was very strongly realised in the book, and it didn't particularly impress itself on us as we read. There are indeed detailed depictions of the teeming life of the landscape: 'unheard rustlings and twitterings, scufflings, scratchings, the light brush of unseen wings', and the point is made early on:

Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.
However, the prose style is somewhat workaday, failing to conjure for us readers any tangible sense of the mystery and force of the landscape, and leading one to read the book as a realist mystery. John said he spent a lot of energy trying to work out whodunnit, and some of us agreed: there do indeed seem to be clues that push the reader in this direction. Did the fact that Irma was wearing no corset mean she'd been raped? Was it Albert the coachman, who is pulled up by Michael for his crude behaviour in whistling at the girls? It's also made clear later that Albert is sexually attracted to Irma. (And what about the missing teacher's state of undress, as witnessed by Edith?) Was the headmistress Mrs Appleyard responsible for doing away with them, since it's quite clear she's a dodgy character, and she seems implicated in the later death of another pupil, Sara, whom she hates for her stubbornness and tendency to challenge? While most of these suspicions are dissipated by subsequent events, they serve to distract attention away from any notion of a force greater than mere human agents at work. And the death of Sara is indeed treated in a realist-crime-novel manner, with planted clues - which however people in our group failed to pick up, presumably because of poor pacing in the narration. I never understood the reference to a note which Mrs Appleyard looks for on Sara's dressing table after her death, and looking back I failed to find a previous reference to it. No one in the group could enlighten me, as it seemed they had missed it altogether. Furthermore, in spite of this realist-crime treatment, it is never clear exactly what part Mrs Appleyard did play in Sarah's death. 

I said that I actually found the writing quite clumsy (which again militated against the possibility of an atmosphere of mystery). There are sentences that don't even make sense, such as this description of the rock before the girls start to climb: 'The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.' A lack of clarity at the start when the schoolgirls are introduced to us (either through poor pacing or lack of vividness or both) - and elsewhere - meant that I failed to register or remember who was who and had to keep looking back to find out, and at the long list of characters with which the book is prefaced. Others said it had been the same for them, and Clare said that the need for a Dramatis Personae was comment enough in itself. The bulk of the book concerns the breakdown of everything at the school after the girls go missing, and although the narration states that this is the 'spreading pattern' of the incident playing itself out in the lives of all of the characters, it did seem 
to us artificially manipulated. I suppose one can theorise that the psychological effect on the headmistress of the impending financial ruin of the school leads her into irrational behaviour, which leads in turn to her cruel treatment of Sara, and to other teachers leaving. However, because of the flat telling, it doesn't feel like an inevitable propulsion, and the subsequent immediate death of one of the departed teachers in a fire is surely coincidental. The section in which the rescued Irma falls unrequitedly in love with Michael (who is still holding a torch for the lost Miranda) seems (on the contrary) inconsequential (flatly told as it is).

A major fault for me was the fact that the novel affects the mode of omniscience, ie all-knowingness, entering the viewpoints of different characters at different times, and sometimes telling us facts that none of the characters know (such as that of Irma's missing corset), yet the narration withholds information about those characters and, of course, about the wider situation. Having been party to some of Mrs Appleyard's private and unspoken anguish about her school, we are suddenly told: 'Whether the events just related [an incident in the school gym] were eventually made known to Mrs Appleyard can only be surmised'.  For me such inconsistencies make for an uncertain narrative voice, and the end result is to make the mysteries seem tricksy and manipulative of the reader. 

Everyone in the group was dissatisfied by the seemingly manipulated mysteries and the lack of narratorial resolution. John suggested that part of the problem may have been that author Lindsay, who was interested in the occult, had in fact written a further, final chapter in which it was revealed that the three girls and their teacher had been overtaken by the spirit of the rock and had gone through a mysterious entrance into another world, their abandoned corsets hanging magically in the air before dropping from the cliff and disappearing. Her publisher, it seemed, persuaded her to cut that final chapter, and thus perhaps pushed the novel into the unfulfilled realism through which our group read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

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