Cbr11bingo Far and Away
I checked the antipodes map to see what the opposite end of the world from Pennsylvania would be. Turns out, it’s in the Indian Ocean, with the closest land mass being Australia. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a classic of Australian literature. Published in 1967, the novel tells the story of three teenaged girls and a teacher who go missing while on a picnic in 1900. This fictional story is famous for being an unsolved mystery, but it is so much more than that. Joan Lindsay, who was 70 when this, her debut, novel appeared, tells a much bigger story about the relationship among humans, nature, and time. The event of the girls and teacher disappearing has a rippling effect throughout the community in the days and weeks that follow. It is a catalyst that pushes other characters toward their destinies.
The events of Picnic at Hanging Rock take place over the course of about one month. It opens on Valentine’s Day, and the students of Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies are full of excitement. They have exchanged cards and are preparing for their much anticipated picnic. The site is a few hours drive by carriage, and so all the young ladies and their teachers/governesses prepare first thing in the morning to leave. All, that is, except headmistress Mrs. Appleyard, governess Miss Lumley and a thirteen-year-old named Sara Waybourne. Sara is being punished for her failure to memorize “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by staying behind and working on that.
It is the height of summer, and the young ladies are dressed in what was considered appropriate attire for the time: corsets under their long dresses, hats, gloves, and stockings. Lindsay writes that the young ladies were “insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunshine…” Lindsay provides ample, vivid descriptions of nature— of Australia’s flora and fauna — throughout this story. The rock itself is an ancient and imposing edifice, a wonder that attracts tourists and nature lovers but which is known to be a treacherous place for inexperienced hikers. After a leisurely lunch, before it’s time to prepare for departure, four girls ask governess Mme de Poitiers for permission to walk closer to the rock. Miranda, Marion and Irma are seniors (17 years old), while Edith is several years younger. The three older girls are fast friends. Miranda is beautiful and much loved; she is kind to all and has long straight blond hair. Marion is exceptionally bright, a mathematician or scientist in the making; Irma is an heiress with a lively disposition and dark curls. Edith is the odd man out here. She is described by the others, including Mrs. Appleyard, as fat and stupid, the class dunce. She comes across as a dull witted whiner who quickly gets tired of walking and takes up complaining. She seems afraid of the rock before they even get close to it, particularly when Marion suggests that the rock must be millions of years old. Edith freaks out at the concept of something being that old, and she gets more hysterical when Marion tells her that her body is full of millions of cells.
One of the themes of the novel is about humans relationship to nature and how they have become divorced from it. Edith is a prime example of this, as is Mrs. Appleyard, who is not really interested in the rock and has never been there in all her years in Australia. Miranda exhibits a strong connection to nature and Marion a curiosity about it that their peers seem to lack. The girls ascend higher and higher, seemingly drawn there by some force of nature itself. Curiously, one of the strange things that happens at the rock during the picnic is that people’s watches stop working and they lose track of time. The four girls fall asleep, as do chaperones and picnickers. It’s as if the power of nature will have its way, no matter what humans wish or plan for.
The failure of the three older girls to return from the mountain, and the disappearance of math teacher Miss McCraw, leads to a frantic search as the sun begins to set. Mrs. Appleyard’s main concern when she learns what has happened is to contain the story. She is concerned about the school’s reputation and finances, and knows that bad publicity will mean less funding. And as days pass and no trace of the girls is discovered, despite the use of bloodhounds and trackers, life begins to unravel for the College and those connected to it. Parents send for their daughters to be brought home, members of the staff resign, and Mrs. Appleyard, a severe and a strict disciplinarian, struggles to maintain her grip on the situation.
Two plot lines ripple out from the St. Valentine’s Day disappearances, and both relate to Miranda. First there is the story of Sara Waybourne, an orphan whose guardian usually sends checks to school in a timely way, but who has not been heard from in months. Sara shared a room with Miranda and loved her deeply. Miranda, ever kind, was Sara’s only friend. While Sara’s plight brought out tenderness in Miranda, it had the opposite effect on Mrs. Appleyard. She sees that despite outward appearances, Sara has a core of strength that irritates her. Their confrontation over memorizing “The Wreck of the Hesperus” sets the tone for their relationship moving forward. If you are unfamiliar with Longfellow’s poem (which Mrs. Appleyard incorrectly attributes to Heymans), you can find it on the Gutenberg Project. It’s worth reading for the subtle references to it throughout the novel.
The other plot line involves a young Englishman who saw Miranda and the other girls in a fleeting moment as they crossed the stream on their way to the rock. Michael Fitzhubert is a university student visiting his wealthy aunt and uncle. They had been having a picnic themselves when the girls walked past. Mike sees Miranda as she glides over the stream, with grace and beauty and her long golden hair. Throughout the novel, Mike’s mental images of Miranda are tied with the swan he sees on his uncle’s lake — graceful, pure and always floating away from him. When he hears about the disappearances, Mike becomes obsessed with finding the girls and enlists the help of the young coachman Albert Crundall, who also saw the girls that day.
This novel is absolutely fascinating and gives the reader a lot to think about. This would be fantastic for a book group. In addition to themes regarding nature, humans, and time, matters of class and gender are also at the forefront of this novel. I also found out that Lindsay actually did write a final chapter in which she explained exactly what happened to the girls and their teacher on the rock. Her editor convinced her to ditch it and leave it a mystery. If you are interested in reading this chapter, you can find it here. I do think it’s a better story without it.