This novel is set in Australia in the summer of 1900. At its outset, the students and staff members of Appleyard College are preparing for a picnic, and one gets the sense that this picnic is the most exciting break in the routine that this community has experienced in months. Two teachers escort the students: the lively Mademoiselle de Poitiers and the bleak mathematician Miss McCraw, who “would have given a five-pound note to have spent this precious holiday, no matter how fine, shut up in her room with that fascinating new treatise on the Calculus” (6). Of the picnic’s location near some dramatic rock formations, the headmistress of the school – Mrs. Appleyard – declares that “the Rock itself is extremely dangerous and you are therefore forbidden to engage in any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes” (7). The fact that the Hanging Rock is forbidden makes it all the more alluring, of course. Surely a Victorian matron like Mrs. Appleyard ought to know such things.
The opening of the novel – in which not much happens beyond the chatter of the students and teachers on the way to the Hanging Rock – is one of the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most. Lindsay characterizes both the individuals and their milieu effectively. We become acquainted with the senior students – Miranda, Irma, and Marion – and with fourteen-year-old Edith, whom an entirely-unnecessary list of dramatis personae declares to be “the college dunce.” I enjoyed the dynamic between the two teachers as they react to the excitement of the girls, and I didn’t mind the lack of clear conflict, although I did notice it. Also significant is the fact that the picnic takes place on Valentine’s Day – a fact that seems odd until one remembers that February is a summer month in Australia.
After lunch, the three senior students, trailed by young Edith, set off to explore the rock, of course. They obtain permission to do so by promising that all they will do is sketch the rock. At the base of the rock, they pass another group of picnickers, who turn out to be a young Englishman named Michael, his wealthy Australian aunt and uncle, and their coachman, Albert. At this point the girls do nothing more than nod to this other party, although Michael and Albert do become important characters later on. When Miranda, Irma, and Marion advance close to the rock and begin their forbidden exploration, Edith follows at first but later comes running back to the meadow in hysterics. We are never told what Edith saw or experienced, and she seems to have some kind of selective amnesia about the incident, in that even after hours and days pass and she calms down, she never explains what happened and no one else presses her especially hard for details.
When Edith emerges from the rock formations screaming, the sour math teacher Miss McCraw is dispatched to search for the other three girls, and she disappears as well. After remaining at the rock long after the scheduled departure time, searching and worrying, the one remaining teacher and the men who drove the students to the picnic arrive back at the school with the remaining students, everyone looking disheveled and upset.
Up to this point I enjoyed the novel quite a lot, although I did notice that the story is told as if from a great distance. At the beginning of the picnic the rock formation is described from the other end of a large meadow, and even when the girls walk right up to the rock, that distance never goes away. The narrative voice seems to mimic the Victorian punctiliousness of Mrs. Appleyard and the other older adults in the novel. I was aware, though, that there was meant to be some kind of sexual symbolism going on in the episode at the rock, although I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why. The three girls who disappear are seniors on the verge of graduation and of course the rock formations epitomize the unknown: they are dark, dangerous, slippery, vast, and sublime. The close presence of Michael and Albert also contributes to the feeling that Lindsay means this scene as an initiation of some kind. I remember subconsciously connecting this scene to the incident at the Malabar caves in A Passage to India, which I don’t remember in much detail but has similar symbolic resonance.
After the group returns, the novel quickly becomes less interesting, and as I see it the problem is that the characters remain isolated. At the school, Mrs. Appleyard forbids the students from unsupervised talking (!), and of course the students are never really unsupervised anyway, so they all suffer their own fears and grief in silence. Because the school is isolated, the efforts of local police and other volunteers to find the girls (or their bodies) never reaches the students. We know about these efforts because the narrative now starts to shift from the girls and teachers at the school to the town where Michael and his family live. Michael is determined to befriend Albert, and they do develop a friendship of sorts, although it is never clear why he finds Albert so appealing. I wondered if Michael’s political inclinations led him to sympathize with the working class rather than with upper-class families like his own, but he never makes these kind of overtures to any other servants besides Albert. I considered the possibility that he might just like Albert’s personality, or that he might enjoy a secret “thrill” from having friends among the servants, or that this behavior might just be a form of generalized rebellion against the older generation. Any of these – or a combination of all of them – is possible, but the author never makes it clear what she intends. I spent a significant portion of the novel assuming that Michael was gay and that sooner or later he and Albert would become lovers. Since no logical reason for Michael’s feelings and actions is provided, I think my brain just substituted an illogical reason, and of course sexual attraction is rarely logical. But these overtures – or flirtations – lead nowhere, and we understand Michael’s motivations no better at the end of the novel than at the beginning.
Life goes on, of course. The girls at the school proceed with their lessons, Mrs. Appleyard hires a new math teacher, and Mademoiselle de Poitiers prepares for her wedding and departure from the school. In town, though, Michael gets involved with the search for the girls, whom he remembered waving to on the day of the picnic, and at one point he insists on camping out overnight at the rocks so he can resume his search in the morning. The next day, though, other rescuers find Michael near the rocks, inexplicably unconscious, and they also find Irma, one of the girls who disappeared. They bring both Michael and Irma back to Michael’s aunt and uncle’s estate, and they recuperate there. Irma seems to have the same selective amnesia that Edith suffered. She is never able to tell anyone what happened, and the Victorian sensibilities of the local authorities ensure that no one presses her too hard, thinking that the emotional strain of the memory might harm her. As far as verisimilitude to the beliefs and practices of the era this restraint is all fine and good, but the novel suffers because of it. As a reader, I want some kind of answer or closure here, even if Irma can’t be the one to provide it.
This novel was published in 1967, although the author does a convincing job of mimicking the storytelling conventions of the fin de siècle; I often thought that this novel seemed to have been written by Forster or Somerset Maugham. However, there are occasional hints that Lindsay intends the novel to be partially about the great historical change that took place between its 1900 setting and its 1967 publication. The late Victorian era’s impulse is always to conceal; the ethos of the second half of the century, on the other hand, urges us to reveal, to pull back curtains, to shine lights on the dark corners of houses and souls. I’m frustrated with the ending of this novel because I am as much a product of my time as Mrs. Appleyard is of hers, but I also think that some of my frustration comes from the fact that I had hoped that Joan Lindsay might have more in common with me than with her characters. Born in 1896, however, Lindsay was in her seventies when she wrote this novel, and she seems to align herself with her characters rather than with a more modern sensibility.
It’s hard for me to say what this novel adds up to. The presumed death of Marion, Miranda, and Miss McCraw qualifies as senseless tragedy, of course, and senseless tragedy is at home in any era. But should we assume that the girls’ bodies were smashed to pieces on the rocks, and nothing more than that? Or did they wait out the rescue efforts, like Huck Finn and Jim, and then slink away to take hold of a new and freer life in the broad and open and untamed wilds of Australia?
I don’t think there is anything in this novel that resembles anything in Huck Finn. But at the same time I can’t seem to quit looking.