Janelle McCulloch’s case of Picnic fever

A Writer’s review of Beyond the Rock.

FIFTY years since the publication of Joan Lindsay’s lauded Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, and with a much-anticipated television series being shot for Foxtel, ‘Picnic’ fever is in the wind again.

Cue a fresh analysis of Lindsay’s engaging story, in the commanding hardback form of Janelle McCulloch’s Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

A biography of Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) is long overdue. The publication of her memoir preceded ‘Picnic’ by five years and she understandably shied away from the tsunami of publicity that rose in the wake of Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of her only successful novel. Much of the unwelcome attention sought a solution to what became of her three fictitious women who disappeared on the monolith on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1900.

McCulloch’s journalistic approach lends her work an investigative air, and with her skilled eye for design and heritage she quickly places Lindsay in context as a young Australian writer and artist with an Edwardian soul.

But this book is a confection. Seriously padded into something akin to an Art Nouveau ladies’ journal, I almost expected to find pressed flowers between the parchment-thick pages.

It’s not just that most of the content is too light for the gravitas suggested by the format, the problem lies squarely in the author’s complicity in a case of mass denial orchestrated by the original publishers of Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ novel.

The fact is, we’ve known the dénouement of the story about the three schoolgirls and their governess who go missing on a monolith, ever since the publication of the controversial last chapter of Lindsay’s book in 1987.

Originally submitted as part of her manuscript, Lindsay built one of the first credible bridges between European and Dreamtime mythologies in this conclusion, but her publishers decided Australians were not ready to cross it.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

The chapter was lopped off, allowing Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw to disappear into thin air, a decision that firmly defined Joan Lindsay as a rather late-flowering Bloomsbury novelist akin to E.M. Forster instead of a modernist writer with the storytelling abilities of Janet Frame.

McCulloch does very little to analyse this critical decision, and nothing to place Lindsay in the era in which her book was written – the 1960s – a time when writers were experimenting in a similar manner across the world.

Instead, the supposition of Beyond the Rock rests on the same old sleuthing that has always seen news-hounds following the trail of purely fictional hints that Lindsay’s story was based on true events.

In lieu of evidence, McCulloch hypotheses around her conclusions and threatens that she could reveal something “when enough evidence is found to warrant publication”.

Despite acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, who were dispossessed of Hanging Rock in the 1840s, McCulloch is content to let the gossamer veil fall over her research with enough whimsy and flim-flam to satisfy those who would rather have their mysteries unsolved.

“Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form.”

I grew interested when she started to draw links between Joan Lindsay and the work of E.M. Forster, the English novelist often credited with inspiring Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ because he experimented much earlier with tales of people disappearing and being impacted by time slips.

McCulloch references his 1902 work The Story of a Panic, Forster’s first story, inspired by a walk into the hills near Ravello in Italy. In it, a boy encounters the full transformative force of classical mythology in his own time during an innocuous picnic.

In another of Forster’s short stories Other Kingdom a young woman disappears on a visit to a beech copse in an Edwardian remake of the Apollo and Daphne story. His Albergo Empedocle relates the encounter an upstanding young Britisher has with ancient forces in Sicily.

But Forster eschewed mythological plot twists in his long-form fiction, in fact he lampooned his own use of them in his novel The Longest Journey.

LADY LINDSAY Joan Lindsay (1896-1984).

This is where Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form; but only if her last chapter gets reinstated with its courageous surrealism. Until then, she’ll be mistakenly labelled an impersonator of ‘Forsterian genius loci‘.

What McCulloch wisely frames for the first time in a mainstream format is the work of academic Terence O’Neill, a friend of Lindsay’s who researched where her story came from.

A real picnic to Hanging Rock by girls and teachers from the nearby Clyde School (Lindsay’s alma mater) was written up in the school magazine in 1919. All the picnickers returned, somewhat dishevelled, after a twilight ramble to take pictures of the moon, but their experience inspired the telling of plenty of ghost stories.

Forty-five years later Joan Lindsay wove this true tale into a credible Edwardian fable with a surreal conclusion, during the era that spawned a time-travelling Doctor Who and popular novels marrying ancient and postmodern themes, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

“Despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day.”

Beyond the Rock beautifully connects many of the dots about Lindsay’s hitherto unknown life and work. Particularly revealing are the number of times she and Daryl attempted to live long-term in England, yet were not able to settle emotionally, financially and culturally.

They never became ‘Bloomsbury’ in the way other antipodean artists such as Katherine Mansfield did, but they were able to recreate it in Australia.

It’s after that acceptance of her sense of place that I place Joan Lindsay, sometime in the mid-1960s, seeing her environment for what it was: truly Australian, with its own genius loci, not Forster’s.

But McCulloch looks back from this time, not into it, or forward, to address her subject’s most compelling escape: despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day by entrusting it to her literary agent to be published posthumously.

She wanted the mystery solved, after all, and it’s probably past time Australia started looking.

It remains to be seen if the Foxtel-Fremantle Media adaptation is the catalyst. If it isn’t, the pathway to unravelling Joan Lindsay’s story lies not in chasing a schoolgirl adventure – that was done by O’Neill – but in finding the seeds of the Aboriginal mythology that must have inspired her.

A journey like that would take us further ‘beyond the rock’ than ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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