Category Archives: Writers

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.

Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf

A Writer’s Review of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

“Goes to the very heart of what literature does.”

ALAN Bennett has made a career out of writing about ordinary people, in fact he seems embroiled in a competition with himself to ‘out-ordinary’ his cast of characters who fade into the wallpaper, noticing the dust and fingerprints on the skirting board as they disappear.

From his gripping Talking Heads series to the divine ordinariness of memoirs about his Yorkshire family in Untold Stories, this has been a fascinating journey into the humour and pathos of the seemingly mundane.

ROYAL MALADY Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George. (Photo: Keith Hamshere)
ROYAL MALADY Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George. (Photo: Keith Hamshere)

At the other end of his oeuvre sits Bennett’s ruminations on those most would class as ‘extra’-ordinary, most notably in Bennett’s stage- and screenplay The Madness of George III, famously altered to The Madness of King George at the cinema so as not to confuse US audiences about having missed I and II in the series, a ‘Bennettian’ twist if ever there was one.

Written a decade later, The Uncommon Reader is a beguiling companion piece to that previous study of royal character and frailty. Like King George, Queen Elizabeth II is quickly overtaken by something those around her consider madness after a fashion, when she exhibits a surprising appetite to read, and read voraciously.

As the novella’s protagonist, Elizabeth proves every bit as plucky, observant and youthful as a Jane Austen heroine. Reading affords her a sense of escapism and leads her to seek connections with those around her.

But a pervading sense of regret waits around every corner for Her Majesty. As literature becomes the great companion that Bennett observes is missing from this privileged life, it comes with a realisation of enormous opportunities missed.

41qiimkmhpl-_sx308_bo1204203200_In this regard, the Queen becomes less Lizzie Bennet and more like the central protagonist in one of Bennett’s monologues, which I’ll speculatively title Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf, in honour of how his characters always seem to find the key to reaching out.

Whether they manage to turn that key – and thereby escape their circumstances – is the rich seam of Bennett’s tragicomic style, and there are some stark differences between the journey of Queen Elizabeth and the classic Talking Heads mix of self-delusion of characters who tend to remain in their comfort zones.

The Uncommon Reader is a divine little diversion, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity.

This book goes to the very heart of what literature does, and how it has the potential to change the world through opening hearts and minds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Weathering relationships with Stephanie Bishop

A writer’s review of Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World.

I CALL them ‘weather stories’, books in which the protagonists are anaesthetised by the attention they pay to the elements in endless cycles of sun and rain and the sensations of water, leaves, dust and wind; and this intriguing novel qualifies.

9780733633782Locked in the inevitability of marriage and parenthood in the 1960s, Charlotte and Henry play out the drama of migration and separation between England and Australia.

One nation is predictably damp, the other is advertised as – and turns out to be – dry. One spouse is capable of seeming sure about the family journey, the other is troubled by being placed in that dilemma, so the author has them take up weather watching instead of communicating.

The dynamic raises plenty of questions: How long have they existed this way? Was it their parenthood, their different homelands and cultures, their careers or their entire generation that brought on the angst?

In exploring what she reveals in the acknowledgements as her grandparents’ story, Stephanie Bishop has either cleverly created a couple whose thought processes are so similar that even their inner voices are the same, or she’s failed readers significantly by making them so.

The result is two characters so frustratingly parallel that if they’d only talk to one another instead of watching the skies and the foliage, there’d be a sense of belonging that they seem to seek… and probably nothing more than a happy tale of life in an English cottage.

“She casts her mind and her voice back into her ancestry and reads the conditions.”

There is a scene in that place – the breakage of a precious object not long before the family departs for Australia – that I found comical and familiar enough to engage me, yet so poignant as to be painful. I felt in solid writerly hands here (there were no passages on the weather, for once, but great insights into the way families fit into houses), yet the solidity quickly vanished and we landed back in more abstract meteorological territory.

Similarly, when Bishop places Henry unexpectedly in his homeland, the descriptions of the places, the walls, the fabric, the people – not the weather – evoke a sense of chosen permanence that is engaging and insightful.

In a less page-turning way as Tim Winton’s The Riders, but every bit as inexplicably, Bishop avoids a story with easy and clear resolutions. Sometimes this is frustrating, but I was left with the sense that Bishop’s family has no explanation for their real-life, enduring mystery.

There are great stories to be told in this space, but they need more solidity and less abstraction to engage readers who want to see connections.

Bishop’s novel is set in the 1960s, but apart from the absence of mobile phones and computer games as a means to placate needy kids, there is almost nothing that places the characters in their time. Henry and Charlotte seem removed from time altogether.

Except Charlotte’s reality, as several members of the book club I read with were swift to point out: a married mother in 1960s Australia had little respite from her children’s demands.

This was perhaps another intention of the writer, but it’s this time disconnect that has led many readers to question Charlotte’s choices – she seems to exist in a more modern period where she has options, whereas Bishop has attempted to portray a woman who is challenged by motherhood at a time when that struggle was deeply misunderstood and seen as a complete aberration.

This book reminded me of my own family mysteries, also wrapped up in motherhood, loss, pain and migration. I kept reading because I felt there might be insights for me, but apart from the sense that children eventually grow up to realise our parents are human, not all-knowing and capable of protecting us from anything, Bishop doesn’t unravel the knot.

She casts her mind and her voice back into her ancestry and reads the conditions. When she finds little detail, she looks to the skies, and the prevailing weather makes for a cloudier story than it needed to be.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. Main photo by Dominic Lorrimer.