The Story line
The year is 1900, the location Appleyard College, a private girls school near Melbourne. On St Valentine’s Day, the pupils have a picnic at nearby Hanging Rock.
A group of girls go to explore the rock and, along with a teacher, three never return. One girl is found alive, but can offer no clues; the others disappear without a trace.
Could this story be based on a true event? Did Lady Joan Lindsay write this after receiving psychic visions?
According to Janelle McCulloch’s research, it uncovered historical evidence for the story’s truth, while some elements of the tale still remain tantalisingly unexplained.
Lindsay, who wrote the beloved Australian novel at the age of 69, claimed it was the result of a series of lucid dreams, wrapping a further layer of mystery around this tragic story. Lindsay wrote it over a four-week period. Other odd occurrences and coincidences were a feature of the late Joan Lindsay’s life, clocks were often known to stop in her presence. When on set for the making of the film almost a decade later, the set wasn’t immune. Co-producer Patricia Lovell reported, “All our watches seemed to be playing up. Mine stopped at 6 pm on the rock… to ask the time became quite a joke.”
There would be a suitably unnerving moment, fans of the book gathered at Melbourne’s State Theatre in 1975 for the Victorian premiere of the film adaptation of Picnic At Hanging Rock.
“The theatre clock mysteriously stopped right on 12,” says McCulloch.
“Joan was known to be a mystic,” says McCulloch. “Her friends firmly believed she had this extraordinary affinity with the landscape, and could ‘read’ it like Indigenous Australians do, and see things in it that we can’t.”
The rock also has a rich and tragic Indigenous history. Corroborees and initiation ceremonies were held there by its original custodians, the Dja Dja Wurrung, Wurundjeri and Taungurong people before most died of smallpox, were murdered by settlers or removed to Coranderrk reserve in 1863. Indigenous Australians have long known it as a special spot, and Lindsay shared that belief.
“It was then that I found out that Joan’s great-grandfather was the police magistrate in the area,” says McCulloch. “So I thought, ‘OK, here’s where she heard the story.’”
McCulloch then turned to online archives and found a document distributed to Victorian police stations at the time. This police gazette detailed that a couple of girls had disappeared in the late 1800s – their ages and descriptions matching that of the novel.
So, did Lindsay “see” the abducted schoolgirls of the late 1800s at the rock? McCulloch believes Lindsay knew a lot more about the disappearance of those girls and thinks she did indeed see things in the landscape at Hanging Rock and Mount Macedon, things she felt she couldn’t talk about. She believes Lindsay chose to pause her story of Hanging Rock at the right moment before she was tempted to reveal more. Indeed, there is a poignant line uttered by Miranda, the “face” of Picnic At Hanging Rock: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”
These abductions happened before Lindsay was born. She first visited the rock in late 1900, aged four, for a picnic with her family. She has said this visit in childhood started an “obsession” with the place. Indeed, according to McCulloch, Lindsay told Martin Sharp, a creative consultant on the film, that she had “an experience on Hanging Rock when she was a very young girl and that it had profoundly affected her”.
The story has endured for a variety of reasons, but the casting of Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda in the film proved a masterstroke by director Peter Weir, with Lambert destined to be remembered as the film’s beguiling heroine.
“Joan was on set one day, sitting quietly to the side watching filming,” says McCulloch. “Anne was having trouble with a particular scene. After dozens of takes, the director asked everyone to take a break and Anne walked off into the bush, dressed in costume, to compose herself. There, she saw Joan. Joan walked straight up to Anne and took her into an embrace and said, ‘Oh, Miranda, it’s been so long!’
“Anne was stunned. She said, ‘Hello. Joan, it’s me, Anne-Louise Lambert. It’s very nice to meet you.’ But Joan seemed to be in this other memory. She clung to Anne, crying. Anne began to cry, too. Anne said that moment felt very real; that Joan’s emotions were very authentic. Joan really did believe that she’d found Miranda.”
Check out the home where the novel came to life; Mulberry Hill has stood still in time.