The cult of Hanging Rock

On the 50th anniversary of Joan Lindsay's most iconic novel Picnic At Hanging Rock, Janelle McCulloch investigates the author's life, one which was filled with as many odd occurences as the story itself. Here, McCulloch shares a little of the mystery surrounding Lindsay's tale and notes on the Australian film that captured the writer's words so poignantly – but it is her conclusion on whether the story is fact or fiction that will surprise the most

  3. Into The Wild: main picture top and below, film stills from Peter Weir’s haunting 1975 drama featuring Karen Robson, Anne Lambert, Jane Vallis and Christine Schuler; below Lambert as Miranda.
  6. xactly fifty years after it was first published, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains a harrowing and haunting whodunit like no other: a surprising and shocking gothic tale dressed up as a romantic, prettily embroidered mystery. It is one of those rare novels that has become more popular over the years; a story that seeps into the imagination and lingers there. While many fans love the narrative for its ambiguity and its lack of denouement, others appreciate its lightness, subtleties, layers, themes and motifs. Alexander McQueen and Sofia Coppola are just two people who have cited it as being influential on their work. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a tale told on many levels. The disappearance of the girls is just the beginning.

I have my favourite themes and meanings. I particularly love the idea that Picnic may be a paean to Mother Nature. Joan was an artist and a writer, but she considered herself first and foremost a gardener, and this shows in her writing. In an interview between Peter Weir and his daughter Ingrid, Peter recalled the day he went for a stroll with Joan around [her home] Mulberry Hill’s country garden. They were discussing Picnic but they were also discussing the mysteries of life, including Joan’s ability to stop timepieces, and Joan said: ‘Well, I’m a gardener you know, and we are rather strange people.’ She was always reluctant to discuss the novel, but she was never hesitant to acknowledge her deep connection with the earth, and how she was happiest when she was either pottering about her garden beds, with her pansies, roses, lilies and vegies, or on holidays at Mount Macedon and Hanging Rock. I believe that Picnic was Joan’s way of capturing the poetic nature of her beloved landscapes; a literary version of one of her glorious watercolour paintings.


s with any book that undergoes a rigorous editing process, a lot of great stories discovered in the course of research for this biography had to be left by the wayside. Most authors love detail, but this book had to span one person’s long life, and it was important to stay on the course of that life without being sidetracked. A lot of what writer Helen Garner called the ‘scraps and randomly collected details’ had to be forsaken in order for the main narrative to remain clear and unencumbered. Looking back, however, it is the beautiful minutiae of Joan’s life that I remember most. For example, I loved the fact that the courtyard of Mulberry Hill was often stained purple when the mulberries of the grand old tree ripened in late summer. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that mulberry purple became one of Joan’s favourite colours.

I also loved the stories of the famous visitors who travelled to Mulberry Hill, including Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The housekeeper, Mrs Clements, told me a wonderful story of how she walked in one day ‘and saw Heathcliff sitting in the drawing room, with his head in his hands in sorrow’. She ‘got an awful shock’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t include this great yarn because Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh visited Australia on their official tour in 1948, long before Mrs Clements started working for the Lindsays. Vivien did return to Australia at a later date after she and Laurence had divorced in 1960, and took time out to visit the Lindsays at Mulberry Hill (Robert Helpmann escorted her), but I couldn’t be certain that Laurence had also visited Mulberry Hill a second time. There were more stories too, of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, and other great Australian writers, and how Joan was in fluenced by them, but they were more heresay, and as Joan hadn’t mentioned these gentlemen in her own personal notes, diaries and unpublished memoires, I decided not to, either.

There were also stories of how certain people (who shall not be named) wanted more sexual innuendo included in the script for Picnic at Hanging Rock, which both scriptwriter Cliff Green and Patricia Lovell verified—Pat detailed this delicate issue in her autobiography—but Peter Weir disputed this, and out of respect for him, and for the beauty of the film, we edited these salacious tales, too.

And there were stories about Hanging Rock that were so disturbing I was reluctant to visit it for many years. Unfortunately I couldn’t verify these either, since there is very little recorded history about Hanging Rock, or what happened in this part of the countryside during the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, at one stage, I was so haunted by the horrors that have supposedly happened here, on the rock and in the area around it, that I could begin to understand how writers have paused, and often stopped their writing completely.

As for whether it’s true? Well, that’s the Great Question, the question that continues to fuel forums on IMDb, where the film’s Message Board section is laden with queries on theories and meanings and symbols, including angels, swans, the supernatural, red clouds, corsets, sexual imagery, and other curious things. There are also fascinating comments on the YouTube clip of Gheorghe Zamfir’s theme for the soundtrack, where one reader wrote the beautiful line: ‘The high note at 8:45 makes my heart stop beating for a little while; it creates chaos in my soul’. (Personally the ‘ascent music’ makes me shiver. I couldn’t listen to it while writing this biography.) After all the research I’ve done, and after all the people I’ve spoken to, many of whom knew Joan Lindsay personally, and all the primary and secondary material I’ve sorted through over five long years, I believe, without a doubt, that the story is true. Cliff Green, who wrote the script and met with Joan to talk about the story, gave me some subtle nuggets of information that stayed in the recesses of my mind until the night before I had to deliver the manuscript, when they suddenly tumbled out of my subconscious and made me gasp with an ‘Ah-HA!’ It was Cilff ’s clever words, specifically about the geology of the rock and the holes in it, that made me realise what could have happened to the girls, and why they were never found. (Keen readers should also check the final chapter of the story.) The great-grand-daughter of Richard Lawless, a police constable based at Woodend at the turn of the century, once phoned into a radio station and told the radio audience that her grandmother had passed on his theory that the girls had fallen into a crevice, which had since closed up. (In the course of my research, I found that a man called Richard Lawless did work at the Woodend Police Station during this period.) Constable Lawless’s theory is certainly intriguing.

And the notion that the police were still discussing the case in 1900, and indeed well into the 1920s, as we discovered from former Clyde girl Dorothy (Dofe) Read’s testimony, is very interesting indeed. Joan Lindsay may not have known much more about the disappearances of the girls, even though her great-grandfather, Henry Weigall, had been police magistrate in the late 1800s, but she certainly left enough clues in Picnic to play a literary dot-to-dot. Her most telling line is the one Mrs Appleyard says towards the end of the novel, when she’s speaking about the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw: ‘How could she allow herself to be spirited away? Lost. Raped. Murdered in cold blood like a silly schoolgirl on that wretched Hanging Rock?’ Perhaps the simplest solution—that they were abducted, then pushed down a hole—is the most likely answer. But we shall never really know.

For now, all I can tell you is that two girls disappeared on the rock. And were never found. And I’d be happy to hypothesise with you about it until the sun sets and our G&T glasses are empty. (My sister-in-law and I do, and she hates that I firmly point the finger at Michael, her favourite character, who – like many of the characters – shares a name with a real-life person; one who was in the area at the time the two girls disappeared). I even have a file of information labelled ‘Hanging Rock: 1800s’, which might become another book, another day, when enough evidence is found to warrant publication. But none of us will ever really know what happened at Hanging Rock in the 1800s, or even on the memorable Clyde School picnic in 1919, when the group of private school girls stayed on the rock until almost midnight, before being spooked by whatever it is that haunts this ancient and mysterious place. And maybe that’s for the best. A little mystery is a wonderful thing. Especially in literature.

Edited extract from Beyond the Rock, by Janelle McCulloch (Echo Publishing: $35).​