By Angharad Lodwick
In 1967 a book was published that has haunted Australia for 50 years. To celebrate this milestone, the National Library of Australia held a very special event.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is a novel set in the Mount Macedon area of Victoria in 1900. Centred around a fictional female boarding school called Appleyard College, the story is about a group of girls who go missing during a picnic to the Hanging Rock geological formation, and the ripple effect the event has on the wider community.
I was incredibly excited about this event, but even though I was familiar with the story I’d never gotten around to reading the book. I had a beautiful hardcover edition that I actually picked up some time ago from the National Library’s bookshop sitting on my shelf which I managed to read just in time. Although it wasn’t necessary to have read the book to enjoy the event, it did make it much easier to follow.
Where’s Miranda was a four-hour extravaganza made up of several different segments. The first segment involved a diverse cast of ten well-known Australian actors: Marcus Graham, Taylor Ferguson, Rob Menzies, Katrina Milosevic, Sean Keenan, Chloe Boreman, Belinda Jombwe, Hunter Page Lochard, Annalise Phillips, Thomas Campbell, Lizzie Schebesta and Megan Smart. The actors took turns narrating abridged chapters of the novel and each actor read the parts of different characters in the book.
It was really lovely to see that the actors had stepped into character by wearing themed outfits. The women were all wearing something with lace, and the men were all in shirts, chinos and boots. Cleverman’s Hunter Page Lochard was even sporting a flat cap. I had dressed for the occasion myself with a green sundress and a bit of lace. The actors did a great job but my particular favourites were Katrina Milosevic, who played the stern head Mrs Appleyard; Belinda Jombwe, who read the parts of two students, Edith and Sara; and Hunter Page Lochard, who played the part of Albert the coachman. Each chapter transition was signalled with Australian bush sounds and changes in stage lighting.
After a reading of three chapters, the second segment began: Genevieve Jacobs in conversation with Dr Chris Conti. After dipping our toes into the story and getting a sense of that atmosphere, this part of the event was a great opportunity to get a bit of background into the life of author Joan Lindsay and her writing process. Lindsay had lived a privileged life in St Kilda and had herself attended a ladies college in the bush. Dr Conti drew our attention to many of the themes explored in the novel, such as Lindsay’s disdain for mathematics, the use of time as a motif and her views on education.
Conti and Jacobs also touched on broader social issues such as inhibited sexuality, Aboriginal ownership of the land as well as the public’s fascination around missing white girls. Conti and Jacobs agreed that since the novel had no overt reference to Aboriginal owners of the land, it was participating in the history of settler fiction, of violent dispossession being unrecognised, of cultural forgetting. The Wurundjeri, Dja Dja Wurrrung and Taungurung people had lived in the Macedon Ranges for tens of thousands of years with Hanging Rock itself originally a site for male initiation. However in the 1840s, many were moved to stations such as Coranderrk. Conti and Jacobs discussed the irony of obsessing over the ghosts of fictional white girls and forgetting the ghosts of real Aboriginal people.
After the conversation, there was another reading by the actors and then intermission. Now, I knew there was going to be an afternoon tea, and as I’d walked into the National Library’s foyer I had seen the makings of something pretty impressive. The décor was simply stunning. There were picnic baskets, old books, parasols, crystal bottles and flowers. There was tea, coffee, scones, pastries and little sandwiches – it was absolutely perfect. It was a great opportunity for everyone to debrief on the event so far and I got to catch up with my co-Lit Blogger Emma about how the event was going so far.
We had a nice break, and then it was back into the thick of it with a conversation between Genevieve Jacobs, Ingrid Weir and Matthew Lutton. Ingrid Weir, a costume designer, is also the daughter of Peter Weir, the director of Picnic at Hanging Rock the film. Matthew Lutton is a theatre director whose stage production of Picnic at Hanging Rock will travel to London next year.
Weir shared some anecdotes about her father’s experience directing the film and said that he had been captivated by the unknowingness of the story. Peter Weir got to meet Joan Lindsay at her home and was explicitly told not to ask her what happened to the girls. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of him and he simply had to. She apparently responded by saying, “Young man, I hope you never ask that again”. Weir also talked about her role as curator of the film and the design work she has done for the DVD edition. Interestingly, she said that her father is not particularly nostalgic about the film. She also discussed the costume design (which her mother Wendy Stites had been involved in) and the iconic but historically unlikely choice of the white dresses.
Matthew Lutton had a lot of views on the ambiguity of the genre of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and settled on Australian Gothic. He talked about the particular horror of Australian summer and the techniques that he has used on stage such as lighting and the use of sound and prose to create an uneasy ambiance. He proudly told the audience that there are two points in his play where the audience actually screams, which makes me want to see it all the more.
The book still evokes the desire in readers to solve something that is unsolveable. As the actors read through the last chapters, the audience was still no closer to finding a solution. When she died, Joan Lindsay left the copyright of Picnic at Hanging Rock to the National Library of Australia. Fifty years on, Australia is still haunted by it, and the National Library has proved that it is the best caretaker for this piece of literary history.
Angharad Lodwick has been book blogging in Canberra for the past two years at Tinted Edges where she waxes lyrical about every single book she reads. Angharad runs a book-themed podcast called Lost the Plot and has been published in a number of online journals such as Feminartsy.
Angharad has a lot to say, and enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction pieces. She is a very familiar face at National Library of Australia author events and liveblogs them before lining up to get her books signed.
Angharad loves to get out and about in the Canberra community to chat to people about various book-related things like street libraries, the Lifeline Book Fair, book shops and book clubs. Her family also runs a book charity called Books for the World. Angharad recently upcycled books for an art project with Blemish Books at Noted Writers Festival 2017.
Angharad is participating in the 2017 ACT Lit-Bloggers of the Future program, which is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Participants are mentored by Sue Terry of Whispering Gums.
Great write up Angharad of an event I’d have attended if I’d been in town that weekend. It sounds like the NLA did the book and its adaptations proud.
I particularly like the discussion about the non-role of indigenous people in the story, and the conclusions drawn from that. It shows how far we’ve come. A book wouldn’t be written like that these days, I’m sure (or hope) without some reference to indigenous Australians.
I was also interested in the discussion about genre. I would have thought that Australian Gothic was the obvious one, alongside the more general Historical Fiction.
And finally, that idea of unsolvable mysteries and the reader’s desire to have everything wrapped up and neatly explains – which of course is not how life goes. Lindsay was pretty brave to go with that I think – and to never engage in discussion about it. (I remember a lot of discussion at the time it came out about whether it was based on a true event. It wasn’t I believe but people were sure it was!)
BTW Miranda’s dress is now on display at the Starstruck Exhibition at the NPG.
Thanks so much Sue, it was a great event with lots of fascinating discussion. I absolutely agree with your point that life isn’t easily resolved and plenty of mysteries go unsolved. Thanks for the tip about Miranda’s dress!
Great coverage Angharad. I also loved Hunter’s flat cap (and his performance) and the way the actors gave a nod to the era in their outfits. It was great to see their rapport on stage in bringing the text to life. The structure of the event to include the interview was really illuminating. I mentioned in an earlier blog the Miranda Must Go movement and thought it was important the discussion included how fictional white narratives can displace aboriginal stories – at the same time, Lindsay’s novel was important in reflecting relationships with place and the threat and mystery of this ancient continent.
Thanks so much Emma, it was great to debrief with you in the middle of the show (and enjoy the delicious scones, of course!)
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