this blogpost includes spoilers of the novel and its adaptations
An uncanny premise
Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1967) is a pseudo-historical Gothic Horror novel which was followed by its famous movie adaptation “The Day of Saint Valentine” in 1975. The novel begins with Lindsay’s fateful remark that it would be up to the reader to decide whether or not the story to be told is completely fictious, or utterly true.
Appleyard College is a school in Australian Victoria in the year 1900, where upper-class girls are meant to be raised to eligible women of society. After the students and teachers venture off to have a picnic at the near rock formation known as the Hanging Rock, the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard receives dreadful news upon their return: Four of the students wandered off to the rock formation to explore it despite having been forbidden, and only one of them returned. At the same time, one of the teachers has disappeared into thin air. None of the women were found in several search parties, until one day, one of the students can be rescued – but neither her nor her fellow student who returned from the Hanging Rock are able to remember anything that happened in the outback.
In the aftermath of the incident, many of the residents at Appleyard College are taken back home by their worried parents, and a few, including the headmistress, meet their grim and untimely fates…A year later, the college burns to the ground in a terrible bush fire, but even a decade later, the missing girls still haven’t been found.
Passing and conception of time within the story and its role as a stylistic element
Time takes up an intricate task in the telling of Lindsay’s novel. Not only does it create an air of mystery, impatience, and uncanniness within the plot itself, it is also utilized as a stylistic feature in form of slowing down and speeding up the perceived pace of the story. To shorten this analysis to a length appropriate for the format of a blog post, the focus will lay on the events up until a few days after the vanishing.
Mrs. Appleyard’s college is a place where strict manners and the abiding to set appointments is expected. The different steps of the day, from breakfast to bedtime, are organized by the clock (e.g. “I shall expect you back […] at about eight o’clock […].”, p.7; “As it was still only eleven o’clock […].”, p.11) and time is generally perceived in a very measurable manner, as time specifications are used often (e.g. “[…] about an hour from now […]”, p.18; “[…] only a few minutes ago […]”, p.19). The journey to the picnic grounds itself seems to take forever: There are hardly any indications of the time that is passing, only elaborate descriptions of the surrounding outback, and the entire ride seems stretched by that to the extent that it almost appears to occur in real time (p.8-14). In a similar way, the stay at the grounds appears lengthy, too. The language draws a picture of a warm summer day, the girls scattered across the lawn all drowsy and lazy, almost as if time stood still (pp.16f) when suddenly, it turns out time had stood still – in form of everybody’s watches, that is: at 12pm sharp, Mr. Hussey the driver’s watch stops ticking, as well as one of the teacher’s, which had “Never stopped before” (p.18). From that moment on, the travelling shadow of the Hanging Rock becomes the only measure of time, indicating how it starts to cast its spell and suck the picnic party in.
There are several instances throughout the opening of the novel where the future is being teased and events are being foreshadowed. One particular passage even shifts the narrative perspective for a brief moment: When one of the students, Miranda, calls back to her fellow boarder Edith on the way to the rock formation, it is referred to how Michael witnesses this and later thinks back to it (p.25), evoking the interpretation that something terrible happens between these two timelines which makes this mundane sight somehow more important. In fact, this will turn out to be the last time somebody saw the group of girls together, but all characters are unsuspecting of this truth then. At the picnic grounds, the girls and their supervisors suddenly lose the devices to measure time properly, yet they try to stick to their schedule (compare again pp.18f). Meanwhile, the girls venturing off into the outback experience something similar: At first, they, too, refer to passing of time in form of minutes, and Miranda keeps reminding the others about how they had to get back soon (e.g. p.28). But at some point of going deeper into the rock formation, their conception of time seems to vanish, the loss of a sense of time even increased by them falling asleep (p.31), as do their inhibitions (p.28). The atmosphere shifts to one that is detached from the order of society and that is almost ethereal, and the girls seem to lose touch, taking off their shoes and dancing on the rocks (p.30). It is then that time seems to slow down, caught in a mysterious haze, until Edith – the only one who has not become a victim of whatever it is that bewitches her friends – snaps and hastily returns to the picnic grounds (p.32). From the later police report of Mr. Hussey, it becomes apparent that Edith’s disruptive reaction triggers time to speed up when panic breaks lose (p.40). As Mr. Hussey also states in his account that by the time they started searching for the girls, they had no way of telling the time at all anymore (p.41) – the Hanging Rock had begun its witching hour.
As the perspective switches to the impatient Mrs. Appleyard waiting for her staff and students to return, the perceived time stands still. Both the headmistress and the readers are anxious to know what is going on, fearing something tragic has happened (p.37). The woman creates an unbearable atmosphere of impatience, checking the clock a dozen times and straining to hear a nearing carriage (p.36). Remembering that the days at Appleyard college are usually strictly time managed and organized, everything seems to fall out of place, strengthening the assumption that bad news ought to be expected.
After that, everything is in a mess, reality appears warped and time not linear: “For the inmates of Appleyard College, Sunday the fifteenth of February was a day of nightmare indecision: half dream, half reality […].” (p.43) The report on the happenings of Sunday the 15th are rather lengthy (pp.43-47), similar to the ride to the picnic grounds. Monday, the college apparently tries to go back to how things were before (“Meals were served with their customary clockwork precision, but only a few of the usually ravenous young women […] did more than trifle with the mutton and apple pie.”, p.47), but the lives of everyone touched by the incident are changed. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are overloaded with more dates, time specifications, and detailed conversations with witnesses, so that it appears as if time had to have slowed down in order to encompass so many little things taking place, and the 3 days after the vanishing of the girls and their teacher seem like the longest ones in history (pp.43-59), especially to those who are left with the mystery.
Joan Lindsay is incredibly skilled in utilizing time for her storytelling. Elements like clocks and time telling are used to signify a contrast between the mundanity of the real world, and the bewitching aura that encases the Hanging Rock. A mix of overly detailed reports of what is happening and what is said stretch the perceived time in the novel, while rapid time jumps and changes of behavior like Edith’s speed it up, to the effect that Lindsay’s audience can feel the insufferableness that is the mystery of the students and their teacher who disappeared during their picnic at Hanging Rock.