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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.