Category Archives: Writers

Two camps at Australia’s Picnic

I RECENTLY came across a first edition of Joan Lindsay’s iconic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock at a local country market, and an early print-run of the book’s last chapter which was published posthumously at Lindsay’s request.

“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, but why the original publishers thought Australians, in the 1960s, weren’t ready to hear 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 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 stipulated in her will that we got to see Chapter Eighteen regardless of all the hullabaloo.

Although a few extra print runs of this chapter were released in 1987, the title quickly disappeared from the high-street shelves. 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.

Dodging reality with E.M. Forster

A writer’s review of E.M. Forster’s The Life to Come.

IN THESE glimpses through the window into Edwardian and post-war restrictions on homosexuality, much of them still chillingly relevant to our times, E.M. Forster recreates his own inner life – and that of gay men everywhere.

8073306Where his living, breathing gay protagonists meet allegorical endings in Classical juxtapositions, Forster was simply staying the hand of damnation he witnessed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, keeping these men safe in another place and time.

Any writer doing that, and in private – most of these works were not published in his lifetime – was likely to be calming his own rising sense of panic and anger at tired British fears about sexual diversity.

Other stories (such as ‘The Obelisk’ and ‘Arthur Snatchfold’) are gloriously lust-filled in and around taboo themes of male sex, yet always replete with Forster’s tempering wit.

My favourite is the collection’s first, ‘Ansell’, the story of an academic forced to eschew the life laid out for him in books and letters, which has undertones of Forster’s most complex novel The Longest Journey.

“Essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s ‘all good now’ for the LGBTIQ community.”

‘Ambergo Empedocle’, the story of a strapping young Britisher, honest to his bootstraps and set for a life of convention, is an Italian-set tragedy akin to Forster’s debut novel ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’. It explores the state of closeting so accurately, and the desire for anything but inhabiting a life where the core restriction cuts to the soul.

Forster often sends his protagonists to other states instead of this world in the denouement of his stories. More often than not, author or protagonist label this a ‘dodge’, a kind of schoolboy’s mind game.

It’s a literary technique that comes straight out of classical mythology, but Forster’s use of it inspired generations of writers decades after he’d hung up his literary tools, including Joan Lindsay, the Australian author of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

While they blend myths and legends with a Sci-Fi edge, these moments reveal Forster capturing the genuine suicidal motivations experienced by a significant proportion of same sex-attracted people.

I have read and reread these stories all my adult life, and will continue to do so. They are essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s “all good now” for the LGBTIQ community.

In them, Forster is celebrating what he got away with sexually and emotionally, yet imagining what the risk could have cost him. Thank Jove he didn’t burn them, like he did some of his other gay-themed work.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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 hypothesises 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.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.