Which comes first – the atmosphere, or the book? Hanging Rock in the Australian state of Victoria was formed 2.65 million years ago and was protected by the Aboriginal people as a powerful and sacred site. White settlers regarded it as a dangerous place – the hangout of bushrangers – and people have long recorded feeling unsettled when there, even if they could not explain why.
In 1967 Joan Lindsay, a member of the creative and artistic Lindsay family, published her novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. In 1975 a classic film was made from the novel, and in 2018 there was a TV series. The book and film made the famous rock seem even more mysterious and strange as a result of the unexplained disappearance of some schoolgirls and their teacher on St Valentine’s Day in 1900.
In October this year, I will be taking a tour group to visit Hanging Rock as part of my literary tour of Victoria, and we will enjoy a picnic while there (I can promise you, I’ll be counting the members of the tour group very carefully when we get back on the coach!). We will also be visiting Joan Lindsay’s beloved home, Mulberry Hill, built in 1926 in the American Colonial style. This was where Joan Lindsay wrote her famous novel. She was eager to write “a very Australian novel”, although she was greatly influenced by E.M. Forster (a picnic is an important event in his A Passage to India). She wrote the book in two weeks! It was at Mulberry Hill that she also wrote her delightful memoir Time Without Clocks (the home was famed for having very few clocks or watches as Joan always said they stopped whenever she came near them). Mulberry Hill is now in the hands of the Australian National Trust.
Hanging Rock was clearly a place of spiritual importance to the traditional owners of the land, but by writing a mysterious and open-ended novel set in that location, Joan Lindsay added greatly to the mystery of the place. I think most visitors to Hanging Rock today would have her novel, or the film versions of it, in their minds during the visit. Place, book, film and atmosphere are closely intertwined.