Ruby Rees, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden and Lily Sullivan in a scene from the TV series Picnic at Hanging Rock. Picture: Foxtel
Ruby Rees, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden and Lily Sullivan in a scene from the TV series Picnic at Hanging Rock. Picture: Foxtel

Picnic At Hanging Rock’s biggest mystery answered

FOXTEL'S Picnic At Hanging Rock is a super-stylised, hypnotic retelling of one of Australia's most gripping stories.

Joan Lindsay's 1967 best-selling novel Picnic At Hanging Rock told the haunting story of the mysterious disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher on a Valentine's Day picnic at Hanging Rock in Victoria. Only one girl returned, Irma, and the book captivated audiences with its feverish tale of female repression. In 1975, Peter Weir directed a hazy film version of the story that left audiences unsettled and future auteurs inspired.

So many years later, the story still feeds off mystery. Where did the girls go? Why did they vanish? What's the deal with Mrs Appleyard? While the new series does its best to fill in backstory, it doesn't tackle the biggest mystery of all: Is Picnic At Hanging Rock based on a true story?

There is evidence for and against this theory, and much of it centres on author Joan Lindsay herself.

WHAT DOES THE BOOK SAY?

 

Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel Picnic At Hanging Rock is written as though it's based on a true story. Many of the places listed - including the iconic Hanging Rock itself - are real places she knew as a child, and Lindsay herself liked to play coy on the matter of the story's veracity.

Lindsay even wrote a haunting foreword that teased the story's truthfulness: "Whether Picnic At Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important."

Lindsay's editors maintained that the story was purely fictional. As the years went on, Lindsay herself finally said it was based on a dream she had and that it was intended to be a mystery.

Nevertheless, there are clues that make people believe Picnic At Hanging Rock really happened.

WHY DO PEOPLE STILL THINK IT'S BASED ON A TRUE STORY?

Author Joan Lindsay in 1977.
Author Joan Lindsay in 1977.

Though the official story is that Lindsay made everything up - writing the hazy, hallucinatory novel in two weeks based on dreams she had - there's a lot of hearsay, gossip, and stone-cold evidence that the tale might be based in some truth.

Author and historian Janelle McCulloch recently wrote a book about Joan Lindsay and the rumours swirling around Picnic At Hanging Rock called Beyond The Rock: The Life Of Joan Lindsay And the Mystery Of Picnic At Hanging Rock. In the course of her research, McCulloch found literary and historical evidence that Lindsay may have gotten her inspiration for the tale from real-life events.

The final two lines of Lindsay's original foreword read: "For the author, who knew Mount Macedon and the Hanging Rock very well, as a child, the story is entirely true." It was cut from the final manuscript, along with a supernatural explanation for the girls' disappearance, but was Lindsay covering her tracks or merely holding back from employing a dramatic framing device to trick the reader into thinking it was a true story?

McCulloch's historical research uncovered a local police gazette that told of two girls who had disappeared in the same area as Hanging Rock in the late 1800s. The girls' descriptions match those of the missing young ladies in the novel Picnic At Hanging Rock. McCulloch says further evidence leads her to believe that "two girls were abducted" and "the girls were possibly hidden in one of the bottomless crevices of the rock".

However, the abductions occurred before Joan Lindsay was born. In fact, Lindsay first visiting Hanging Rock as a four-year-old in 1900, the same year the book is set. And she reportedly had an experience on Hanging Rock that "profoundly affected her".

SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

The haunting story lives on in a new Foxtel miniseries. Picture: Supplied/Foxtel
The haunting story lives on in a new Foxtel miniseries. Picture: Supplied/Foxtel

As Lindsay describes it - and the Peter Weir film and Foxtel television series portray - no, it didn't really happen. However, it seems very likely that Lindsay drew on local stories and personal experiences to graft together the story. It's probably loosely based on a tragic true story that's been bent for dramatic effect.

McCullough also tracked down an elderly woman who went to the school the fictional Appleyard College was based on and she confirmed that back in the day, it was common knowledge that two girls had disappeared close to Hanging Rock. McCullough believes that Lindsay must have heard about these events from family members.

ANYTHING ELSE?

The young cast of the new Hanging Rock remake.
The young cast of the new Hanging Rock remake.

It's worth mentioning that when Peter Weir wanted to adapt the book for film, he was warned that he should not - under any circumstances - ask Joan Lindsay if the story was true or not. I mean, you have to ask: Why so touchy about the truth, Joan?

This story originally appeared on Decider and is republished here with permission.


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