Truth and fiction: The controversy of Picnic At Hanging Rock

Was it true or was it false? The story that shook Australia.


In 1967, author Joan Lindsay published the novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock. The foreward read: “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.”

Given a choice, readers of a mystery novel will always choose to believe a story is true.

And, indeed, as readers made their way through the story, the seed planted by Lindsay began to grow, and by the end many believed that the story was real. That story, set in the dawn of the 20th century, 70km northwest of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria, featured Miranda, who attended a girls’ boarding school in Australia. One Valentine’s Day, the school’s typically strict headmistress, Mrs Appleyard, treated the girls to a picnic field trip to an unusual but scenic volcanic formation called Hanging Rock. Despite rules against it, Miranda and several other girls ventured off. It wasn’t until the end of the day that the school and its staff realised the girls and one of the teachers had disappeared mysteriously.

It was an intriguing and, ultimately, heartbreaking story, written so convincingly as a true story it shook Australia to its core. Lindsay’s details throughout were extraordinary: in a pseudo-historical afterword purportedly extracted from a 1913 Melbourne newspaper article, it was written that both the college, and the Woodend Police Station – where records of the investigation were kept – were destroyed by a brush fire in the summer of 1901. In 1903, it was said that rabbit hunters came across a lone piece of frilled calico at the rock, believed to have been part of the dress of the governess, Miss Greta McCraw, but neither she nor the girls were ever found.

Even in the 1960s, the allure of true crime was real. And, like War Of The Worlds before it, Picnic At Hanging Rock fooled almost everyone who read it.

Lindsay didn’t set out to produce a hoax, but it was a story that felt all too true.

Now, with a new TV adaptation released in non-UK territories on Amazon Prime today (25th May) and soon to be transmitted on the BBC in the UK, the myth within the mystery has resurfaced.

Here’s a trailer:

The novel, and the subsequent movie version in 1975, struck a chord within Australian society like no other. The oneiric feel of the story – indeed Lindsay claims that the story came to her in a dream – and the unresolved nature  (even though there was a final chapter, which tied up the loose ends, had been left out of the published version), meant that people didn’t quite know what the truth was.

And Lindsay herself didn’t exactly confirm or unconfirm, either.

“Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story – that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.”

And neither did her editor:

“Did I think the story was true? We did talk about this. But the truth for Joan was different to the rest of us. She was never straightforward about it. I think I decided in the end that it was a great work of the imagination. I see it as a book of place; a painterly book that captures the atmosphere of the Australian bush.”

So what did it tap into and why was the reaction so powerful?

The mystery element shocked and enthralled, as any good mystery element should, but there seemed to be a deeper, cultural significance to this tale. Critics mined both EM Forster’s A Passage To India and Greek mythology for comparisons, meanings and symbolism. “There is more, of course, to A Passage to India than Pan motifs, for example, symbols such as the snake, the wasp and the undying worm, not to mention the vast panorama of India’s religions,” opined one. “But I believe it probable that Joan Lindsay consciously borrowed the elements [from A Passage to India].”

The relationship between the land and the indigenous, Aboriginal population seems to be one of the ‘second stories’ that Lindsay was exploring. Literary scholar, Kathleen Steele, argues that the novel’s “gothic landscapes raise doubts that the majority [of Australians] ever subscribed to the notion that the country and its natural environment was unmarked by a history prior to the arrival of the British colony.”

Did Picnic At Hanging Rock also explore colonial guilt? Did Lindsay think the characters were trespassing on sacred ground, and that the land took its revenge?

We’ve seen this idea in modern series like Jordskott, but Picnic At Hanging Rock perhaps provoked these feelings within readers (and, subsequently, viewers), perhaps whether they knew it or not. A mystery is a clever way to introduce deeper, cultural ideas into a story.

Gizmodo Australia said:

The saga of missing children – particularly girls, and particularly pretty young white girls – has become an incredibly common theme in crime dramas nowadays, and while Picnic at Hanging Rock hits some of the expected beats (detectives, a search party, rampant rumours and gossip), its central mystery reverberates on a more cosmic level than most police procedurals. There’s a repeated line, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place,” and the sense of borders being crossed also repeats – be they between girlhood and womanhood, between teachers and students, between Australia’s colonial settlers and the unfamiliar wilderness that surrounds them, or even between life and death. It’s a constant theme that goes back to that Poe quote. Is this real, or are we in a dream… or a dream within a dream?

Many people still think Picnic At Hanging Rock is a true story, and the discussions about whether there is a link between the Aboriginal people and modern Australia still carries on today. On the 50th anniversary of the novel’s release, a campaign was launched to highlight the significance of indigenous history at Hanging Rock, rather than Australia’s obsession with a fictional story about missing girls. They called it ‘Miranda Must Go’.

It seems that the very issues Lindsay might have been drawing her readers’ attention to had been overshadowed by the characters and the story themselves. After all, Picnic At Hanging Rock is also a story about Victorian values clashing with burgeoning, female sexuality, too. About unseen and ununderstood primal forces breaking down Victorian repressions.

Author, Janelle McCulloch, said: “Australians were hungering for something that was quintessentially Australian. They wanted books and films that held up a mirror to the nation. It was perfect timing.”

In the end, Picnic At Hanging Rock was a good, old-fashioned mystery, heightened by the fact that it was presented as truth – or at least the idea that it was a true crime story was not completely dismissed – but also a story that asked the reader (or viewer) to examine his or her’s own cultural and moral identity, and how it fitted in with Australia’s past, present and future.

Picnic At Hanging Rock begins in non-UK territories on Amazon Prime, Friday 25th May; and will be shown by the BBC later this year.



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