I came to Picnic at Hanging Rock via the film. I first saw the film a long time ago, and enjoyed it. Only recently I noticed the Vintage reprint of the novel on a bookshelf at the local bookshop, and only then realised that the film is based on a novel. I felt I had to read the novel that had inspired it.
The novel (and film) is set in 1900, and tells the story of a trip to Hanging Rock by a party of school girls from a local private school. Hanging Rock is a large rocky outcrop, with a picnic area below it. During the picnic, some of the girls, and one of the teachers, decide to climb up the path to the top of the Rock. All but one of the children and the teacher go missing. The child who returned does not know what happened to the others; she had felt ill, and stopped to rest. Still, she had returned screaming, so perhaps knows something.
We never find out why the girls and teacher have gone missing. We do not know if they are dead or alive, murdered or simply abducted. For the first quarter of the book, none of the missing are ever found. A young man in another picnic party, who had seen the girls heading for the Rock, and become instantly obsessed with one of them, is also obsessed with finding her, and thus the others. Drawn to the Rock, he finally does find one of the missing girls, although it is not the girl of his obsession.
The time spent in the narrative from the preparation for the picnic to the moment the girls go missing is short; the rest of the novel relates the repercussions of the mystery — the search for the girls, the effects on pupils, teachers and staff at the school, the effect on other visitors at the Rock that day. The novel follows ripples from the event outwards from the Rock. Suffice to say, all is never well at the school again. By the time the novel ends, the mystery of the disappearance has still not been elucidated; only the ripples remain.
There is a certain coldness to the novel, a certain detachment from the characters. I never felt that any of the characters, apart from a stable hand, had been particularly deeply drawn, or were particularly engaging. The countryside around the school, the small settlement near the school, and the Rock itself, are more richly drawn. Everything is sun and heat and wind and ripples and vegetation and lizards and scuttling, and horses and flowers and boats and traps, and finally, rain and cold. And yet that is engaging enough; it is enough to spin a spider’s web of myth and archetype around and about, to stick me into place and watch the various characters react to the ripples on the surfaces and the winds across the plains.