Two camps at Australia’s Picnic

I RECENTLY came across a first edition of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock at a country market, and an early print-run of the book’s last chapter, The Secret of Hanging Rock, published two decades later.

“Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing?”

With the new television adaptation out this year, my interest was piqued and I purchased both, eager to pick over the evidence of one of Australia’s enduring literary mysteries. Not what happened to the missing schoolgirls and their governess on a volcanic outcrop in the bush at the turn of the 19th century, but why the original publishers thought Australians, in the 1960s, weren’t ready to know the end of the story.

The copy of Picnic is rather dog-eared, having been purchased for a secondary school library soon after publication in 1967. The borrowing slip in the back reveals the book was enthusiastically loaned in the years before Peter Weir’s groundbreaking screen adaptation of the novel in 1975.

NOW A MAJOR FILM Penguin’s 1975 film tie-in paperback.

I own a very well-thumbed paperback published by Penguin in 1975 as a film tie-in, but this is the first time I have ever seen the iconic F. W. Cheshire Publishing Ltd. hardback, with its lurid green, psychedelic dust jacket illustration oozing a 1960s vibe like Rosemary’s Baby. I checked online and found that even in this condition, my battered, plastic-covered survivor is worth hundreds of dollars. Not a bad buy on my part, for just five.

Despite Cheshire’s and Penguin’s apparent reluctance to publish it, The Secret of Hanging Rock emerged in 1987. This slim volume is Lindsay’s final chapter to Picnic, padded by literary essays from members of a lucrative cult that grew out of Lindsay’s only successful novel.

MYSTERY AUTHOR Joan Lindsay’s name is mysteriously absent from the cover of her last published work.

These can be broadly defined as utilising humour, whimsy and academic analysis to justify the decision to keep the solution to Joan Lindsay’s mystery from the international (paying) audience of book and film. What none of them countenance is that the original story — if you keep Chapter Eighteen intact — is hardly a mystery at all.

What was strangely missing from the front cover of The Secret of Hanging Rock was the name of the woman who ensured Picnic’s final chapter saw the light of day: Joan Lindsay herself.

Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing? Truncated stories and omitted credits… it’s as though Lindsay wasn’t ever to be trusted with her own work. Luckily she ensured we got to see Chapter Eighteen regardless of all the hullabaloo.

Although at least four reprints of this chapter were released in 1987, the title quickly disappeared from high-street bookshelves. Eventually, it started to garner very high prices on the second-hand market.

AUTHOR, REINSTATED Joan Lindsay finally got cover credit in 2016.

That all changed in 2016 when it was re-released by ETT Imprint with an extra essay penned by Mudrooroo, who towed the cult’s line by nixing any hint of Lindsay’s final chapter containing a solution.

The eBook edition reached No. 1 on Amazon in its category, Joan Lindsay finally made her own front cover, and everyone, including her estate, got their portion.

This was hardly a surprise. In 2016, a stage adaptation of Picnic premiered in Melbourne, and a new television series was announced.

But outside the machinations of publishing, this new outbreak of picnic fever has arrived with something of a reckoning.

Lifting the gossamer veil

In 2015, the fortieth anniversary of Weir’s film, which hit our screens during Australia’s constitutional crisis around Gough Whitlam’s sacking, a few journalists marked the milestone with reminders of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s enduring cultural significance.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

I called for a remake to reinstate Lindsay’s final chapter and acknowledge the bridge that she built between European settlers and Aboriginal Dreamtime in her truncated last chapter. Australians were ready to have the mystery solved, I reckoned.

An ongoing protest titled Miranda Must Go was on a similar trajectory, started by Melbourne artist and PhD student Amy Spiers, whose ultimate aim is to “decolonise” Hanging Rock and allow its Indigenous meaning to re-emerge.

But there are those who want the Edwardian gossamer veil to remain in place.

In 2017, a new biography of Lady Linsday, including an analysis of her Picnic oeuvre, came in the form of Janelle McCullough’s weighty tome Beyond The Rock.

It’s a very good read (check out my review) for those wanting to know more about Joan Lindsay, and it sheds a little more light on the origins of the story, but Lindsay’s bridge to Aboriginal Australians was not analysed.

Picnic camps

Walking the line between these two Picnic camps is Fremantle Media’s television adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, currently screening on Foxtel with its astonishingly youthful cast.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Despite decades of calling for more roles for older women in popular culture, it was a shock to read that iconic middle-aged characters like headmistress Miss Appleyard and mathematics teacher Miss Greta McGraw (thoroughly well-portrayed by Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray in Weir’s production) were cast with actors barely older than the schoolgirls.

This decision seems, at least partially, to cloud the “feminist lens” producer Jo Porter (director of drama for Fremantle Media Australia) claimed the production has at its core.

Pre-production on the series was dogged by protests from the Australian Directors’ Guild about engaging an offshore director instead of looking to Australian creatives, particularly since the production is financed solely by Australian backers.

What’s clear is there’s a strong sense of ownership around Picnic at Hanging Rock. The book, the place, and all cultural expressions of it have become critical to ongoing discussions about reconciliation between colonising Europeans (and others) and Aboriginal Australians.

One territory was drawn on Joan Lindsay’s behalf by her publishers when the decision was made to remove the last chapter in 1967, and ongoing attempts to besmirch its content as “unfilmable” and an unsatisfactory end to the story.

But another camp has settled into this Picnic. Around it, people are speaking (and listening to) the truth about Hanging Rock, its Indigenous heritage and significance. The conversation does not start, or end, with Joan Lindsay.

Right on cue, Penguin has re-released a new TV tie-in edition, staunchly entrenched with its blind-spot on what Lindsay’s final chapter might add to the reconciliation conversation.

But that will never be the end of this story…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Two camps at Australia’s Picnic”

  1. I now realise I’m unfamiliar with this work’s last chapter, though I clearly renember the haunting music to Peter Weir’s film; an eerie portrayal of Edwardian girls school traditions valiantly trying to take a place amidst a harsh native Australian bush backdrop. I am prompted to seek rhe full re-released work to read, Michael. Need to know more!

    1. Good on you Ruth! My advice would be to read the book AND its 18th chapter in one sitting, as originally intended by Joan Lindsay. Avoid all the annotations of other writers and just read it without a break in between. I found it very powerful, and no less evocative.

  2. Normally, apocryphal or otherwise spurious texts are only attributed to a deceased author after careful scientific inquiry of its authenticity. This did not happen in the case of Lindsay’s presumed ‘missing chapter’.

    It seems that even the burden of proof has been turned around. Instead of the necessity to prove that this suddenly appeared ‘missing chapter’ is actually Lindsay’s, sceptics now are asked to prove that is is NOT Lindsay’s. Like you aske of me when I informed you about this issue. For me, this is the world upside down.

    I believe that this ’18th chapter’ should *only* be considered part of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ if it is genuinely written by Joan Lindsay. And the problem is: we don’t know. Not with sufficient certainty.

    For some years now, I have tried to find out about the *material evidence* for this attribution. I have found none. The assumption is based on hearsay, and more hearsay, and in the end on statements uttered by her publisher (or literary agent).

    I have found no traces of a manuscript, nor any annotated typoscript, diary entry, personal correspondence that is verifiably contemporary, no ‘last will’ or notary documents transferring the rights of that chapter. In sum: no authorized, validated material by Joan Lindsay about the matter.

    As far as I know, no Australian philologist has taken the trouble to investigate the authenticity of ‘Secret of Hanging Rock’ or any manuscript.

    Now, do we think it is O.K. to publish a book with this ‘last chapter’ under Joan Lindsay’s name, if its authorship has not been seriously established? I think the memory of one of Australians finest authors should be served, not contaminated.

    Best regards, Michel Couzijn, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s