Picnic at Hanging Rock describes an unsolved mystery that people have been fascinated by since it was published. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel Joan Lindsay claims “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves”. With this she leaves open the possibility that the vanishing of the girls could actually have happened, skillfully leaving the reader with a fascination of a real mystery that is left for them to be solved. But how come the captivation of this mystery spread all across Australia and even internationally? Dr. Julia Shaw, a research associate at University college London and an expert on criminal psychology says that “we like true crime because it’s something we can talk about as a group. We can gossip, speculate, and be afraid or excited together.” Perhaps this is the reason that there are so many theories about what happened to the girls in the end and why people are drawn to the story.
With this in mind it makes sense that Lindsay’s publishers stopped her from including chapter 18 in the final version of the novel, not wanting the readers to know what really happened and thereby creating a long-lasting interaction with the text. But Lindsay decided that the chapter should be published after all and many more interpretations and possible solutions came to light. And while many of them seem absurd or unfitting, it is especially worth to at least acknowledge them considering Lindsay changed the author’s note after having published the novel to “fact or fiction or both” (Taylor 4). It seems in her eyes the explanation has no need to be completely reasonable. But this also opens up a lot of space for new propositions.
While it would fill many pages to consider every possibility, I would like to offer a quick but somewhat broad range of solutions based on chapter 18. The Secret of Hanging Rock includes a commentary by Yvonne Rousseau and an interpretation by Mudrooroo aside from chapter 18 itself. Mudrooroo puts forward one of my favorite interpretations that I have considered so far, which is alien abduction. And as out of place as it may seem I rather think that the fact that it somewhat fits the narrative of the last chapter, shows how even the most absurd can make sense in the context. Mudrooroo argues that the monolith at which the girls had suddenly fallen asleep resembles the way many have described an UFO in an oval shape. When Miss McCraw appears, they do not recognize her, which may be because she herself is an alien as her “long-boned torso was flattening itself out on the ground beside the hole, deliberately forming itself to the needs of a creature to creep and burrow under the earth” (Lindsay 18). The girls act dazed and entranced and observe “a hole in space” (17), which Mudrooroo argues may be the entrance to a spaceship.
Rousseau proposes multiple solutions, one of which is an Aboriginal supernatural interpretation. Using “the Dreaming”, she suggests that Miranda and Marion represent human forms of Australian Ancestors. We learn that “they fell asleep so deep that a lizard darted out from under a rock and lay without fear in the hollow of Marion’s outflung arm, while several beetles in bronze armour made a leisurely tour of Miranda’s yellow head” (Lindsay 14). This would mean that for Marion lizards are what she represents and for Miranda it is the beetles. This point of view would also explain why Irma is the only one to come back from the Rock, because she has “little hands, soft and white” (Lindsay 19), perhaps too foreign to have a spiritual connection.
Rousseau’s other explanation has to do with dimensions of time, and she states that to her, the girls, except for Irma, have died after climbing up the mountain. She sets up three regions. One is our world, the second is where Edith left the Rock and Miss McCraw cannot be recognized (Time One), and the third is a light, into which they pass in the end (Time Two). She also explains that after their death, they are in Time Two, and not in our world anymore. In the beginning of chapter 18 Lindsay writes “To the four people on the Rock it is always acted out in the tepid twilight of a present without a past” (13). To Rousseau this past that they do not have is their existence in a physical sense. They have left the physical world and cannot be found. For this theory she also has a reason why Irma is excluded. Since Marion and Miss McCraw are skilled mathematicians and Miranda is philosophically inclined, Irma would have the most problems comprehending a complex plane of existence.
To me a solution that revolves around different perceptions of time makes a lot of sense. Joan Lindsay herself once said that she never wore a watch, because she said they stopped all the time. Similarly, the watches at the picnic also stop. But also, looking at the dates in the novel we can see that the picnic is said to be on a Saturday, even though it should be a Wednesday. Furthermore, their corsets hang in the air after they tried to throw them down the Rock, suggesting that they are stuck in time.
I personally also favor a feminist view of the novel in which the girls run away because they would not submit to what society expected from them. They plan to leave and even throw away their clothing, but especially their corsets, which so nicely stand as a metaphor for their entrapment, having to give in to society’s expectations of getting married soon after finishing school, which they were all close to doing. The Rock stands as a symbol for freedom, because it is far beyond and separate to the English society. Taking off their corsets “a delightful coolness and freedom set in” (Lindsay 15). They decide that risking their lives on Hanging Rock to gain some freedom is better than being forced into a life they never wanted. Only Irma changes her mind and is later to be rescued, but she is also “the wealthiest student at the College” (Lindsay 12), and arguably the one able to make choices more freely.
A theme that we can see throughout the novel is its interconnectedness with nature. Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock illustrates the enchanting and mysterious character of the Australian landscape. It is a fascination to the extend of the sublime. Especially when the girls are on the top of Hanging Rock, seeing the picnickers from above as “a lot of busy little ants”, and the monolith “pulling, like a tide” (Lindsay 14). Up on the mountain “the whole air was clamorous with microscopic life” (15). As a contrast the English picnickers sit far down beneath them as invaders in a strange landscape. Only Albert was able to save Irma from the Rock after Michael found, but barely made it out alive. From this perspective the Australian landscape entrances them so much that they become disoriented, get lost and never return, because they could not withstand the nature of Australia.
In the introduction to The Secret of Hanging Rock John Taylor says that “[Joan Lindsay’s] own account was that the story “just came to her” in stages as she lay awake at night, to be written at high speed the next day” (Taylor 4). They were not exactly dreams, but laying awake at night I would argue, close to them. All these possible interpretations can be backed up by evidence from the text and worked out much further than I did, to provide a short overview. Considering the dream-like origin of the story I would argue that the interpretations all have some truth to them. It is likely that Lindsay was influenced by many things in her life and her surroundings. That way, facts and fiction mixed into one new thing, making it impossible to find the one true solution. The decision to not have chapter 18 published was made so that the mystery would remain. But the chapter does not really give the reader concrete answers either. The mystery remains all the same. If anything, the chapter provided more to interpret; more mystery. This gives the reader the freedom to make the story their own, which is why it is natural for readers to go look for solutions and interpret the novel their own way. Joan Lindsay said she “had moments of wishing she had published the final chapter and saved herself the pestering” (Taylor 9). In her opinion, since everyone in the story would be dead anyway by the time the novel was published, “it hardly seems important”. And while I enjoy looking for new clues and new solutions, in the end I have to agree with her. It’s about the mystery, especially because it is so unclear what really happened. It’s a bit paradoxical. We want answers, but if we got them, it wouldn’t be as good. If we did get answers, it would become about the solution instead.
Lindsay, Joan. Picnic at Hanging Rock. London: Vintage. 1998.
Lindsay, Joan. The Secret of Hanging Rock. Sydney: ETT Imprint. 2016.
Shaw, Julia. “Why are we so fascinated by true crime?” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3W2DpMtxRtXnFYk75fN1djL/why-are-we-so-fascinated-by-true-crime. Accessed 14 February 2021.
Taylor, John. “Introduction” The Secret of Hanging Rock. Sydney: ETT Imprint. 2016.