Having seen Peter Weir's film before reading Joan Lindsay's novel it is difficult for me to review the book without referring to the film. The film leaves out some details from the novel but both convey the same sense of beauty, horror and loss, longing and haunting. We are told on the book's cover that the story is based around a St Valentine's day picnic in 1900, and the disappearance of some of the picnic party.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is Joan Lindsay's only work of fiction, although its many themes are firmly based on reality. The story covers the loss of youth, beauty and innocence; love and sexuality; discrimination, prejudice and class privilege; fear, passion and the breakdown of order; the English Empire in a foreign environment, the clash of alien cultures, and the end of an era; beliefs and life's purpose; life's myriad web and coincidences; destiny and fate; and Time itself, reflected in Miranda's favourite quote "Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place".
Joan Lindsay's descriptions of the Australian bush and wildlife are as evocative as Russell Boyd's cinematography. The style and language of her writing is deliberate to emulate turn-of-the 20th century writers.
The girls images were already imprinted on my mind when I read the book and the casting in the film seemed to me perfect, especially that of Anne Louise Lambert as Miranda and Karen Robson as Irma. Joan Lindsay described Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French teacher and the girls' confidante, as having blond hair, yet the casting of the excellent Helen Morse was inspired.
Joan Lindsay describes Miranda as a Botticelli Angel from the Galleria Degli Uffizi in Florence, and Peter Weir specifically uses the image of the birth of Venus. Miranda is all knowing and shows compassion to Sara and Edith the least popular girl's at the school. Anne Louise Lambert's portrayal of Miranda with her ethereal beauty and enigmatic smile captures the vision perfectly, and is reminiscent of the knowing smile on the death mask of the famous "L'Inconnue de la Seine", who coincidentally died around 1900 in Paris.
The story's many strands are reflected by the girl's layers of virginal white dress representing suppression and restriction, with gloves, stockings and shoes being shed by the more enlightened girls on their ascent of the rock. Peter Weir used several techniques to convey the many layers of the story including shots into mirrors as into another dimension.
Joan Lindsay made a literary mistake which Cliff Green repeated in the film script - Felicia Hemanes' famous Victorian recital piece is "Casabianca" (about the Battle of The Nile), and not "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (the captain ties his daughter to the mast to save her from the storm which eventually sinks the ship) which is by Henry Longfellow. Discrimination is shown by Mrs Appleyard against Sara (an orphan) who is punished for not learning the poem, by being kept back from the picnic, whereas clearly Irma cannot remember it (on the picnic she can only quote the first line) but her family's wealth and her position as heiress obviously carry influence.
The importance of time and place are shown in that Joan Lindsay based the location of her story on Hanging Rock near mount Macedon in Victoria, which is a sacred Aboriginal site. To provide added authenticity Peter Weir filmed at the rock during the same six weeks of summer. Aboriginals believe time is not linear and Joan Lindsay refused to have clocks in her home, hence the title of her autobiography "Time Without Clocks". At Hanging Rock both Mr Hussey's and Miss McCraw's watches stopped at twelve o'clock. 14 February 1900 actually fell on a Wednesday, not a Saturday, unless Joan Lindsay used the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian, so that the eleven days were not lost? The open endedness of the novel is deliberate to mirror life where we may learn or uncover some secrets but never understand the mystery. Plenty of clues and coincidences are related, together with unexplained details such as the absence of scratches to Irma's bare feet, yet identical injuries appear on her and Michael's heads, very reminiscent of the X-Files.
This is a very thought provoking and inspiring story that will haunt you. I find the book and the film compliment each other exceptionally well, so if you haven't already done so I urge you to also seek out the film.