To my mind, the most masterful touch in Joan Lindsay’s very well-crafted novel Picnic at Hanging Rock is the disappearance of the self-contained, seemingly logic-driven mathematics teacher Greta McCraw.
Sure, the main focus of the story is on the three senior students from Appleyard College — the highly competent Miranda, the extremely rich Irma Leopold and the very smart Marion Quade — who, during a St. Valentine’s Day picnic at Hanging Rock in the Australian state of Victoria in 1900, go away from the main group on a walking exploration of the famous geological formation.
Suddenly, a younger girl Edith Horton comes stumbling back to the picnic site, her dress ripped by branches and brambles, laughing and crying and babbling that she’d left the other three somewhere up on the Rock.
In the ensuing chaos of the rest of that day and the days that follow, much happens:
- An immediate search fails to turn up the three girls.
- Michael “Mike” Fitzhubert, a 20-year-old English heir, who was captivated by a glimpse of Miranda on the fateful day, goes searching for the girls on his own and nearly dies in the effort.
- But he’s able to get his coachman friend Albert to go out there later and so find an unconscious Irma.
- Mike can’t remember what he saw up on the Rock. Irma can’t remember what happened. Edith can’t remember much of what she saw.
- Mike and Irma seem to be a perfect fit for each other, but Mike can’t forget Miranda.
- Much to the anxiety of Mrs. Appleyard, the college mistress and owner, the school begins to fall apart with students being removed by parents and guardians and with staff leaving, sometimes to better times, but sometimes to dark events.
- The school itself becomes the focus of dark events, including a murder and a suicide.
Although the text of the 1967 novel gives no indication, reports over the past half century revealed that the book included a final chapter in which Lindsay explained everything. Her publisher, cagily, persuaded her to excise that ending, and it was a brilliant stroke, resulting in the huge popularity that came the novel’s way.
That’s because the reader knows that there has to be some explanation for the disappearance of the girls and spends the novel speculating about what it might be and expects to find out — but doesn’t find out. So the novel and its mystery lingers in the reader’s mind well after the book is finished.
The questions are captivating:
- Did the girls plan to run away?
- Were Miranda and Marion successful? Are they out there somewhere living new lives?
- Were they more than friends? Were they lovers?
- Did someone at the school help them get away?
- Did Miranda and Marion have an accident in some difficult-to-reach place on the Rock and died of wounds or exposure?
- Did they meet some criminals? Were they kidnapped? Raped? Murdered?
- Did they meet dangerous animals and lose their lives that way?
- Also — because of a hint at the start of the novel — was this a real story or fiction? Could Lindsay have been one of the girls? Or known one of the girls?
- Also, is Irma being truthful when she says she can’t remember what happened?
- Is Edith being truthful when she says she can’t remember much of what happened?
With the girls or not?
This is why the subplot of Greta McCraw was so brilliant.
All of the above questions are interesting-disturbing-scintillating when raised in the context of the three girls, each of whom was 17 or 18. Three teenagers — who can say what they might do?
But, with the inclusion of McCraw, the interesting-disturbing-scintillating quotient jumps exponentially.
Because of her disappearance, the reader has to face the complicating mystery of whether McCraw — who is described, albeit by someone in his 20s, as “elderly — was somehow with the girls or not.
Not only that, but she’s last seen by Edith walking through the underbrush in her bloomers — i.e., without her long Victorian skirt.
What gives? And is this related to the fact that Irma is found not wearing her corset?
So, the disappearance is much more complicated, and so are the questions:
- Could the mathematics teacher and the group of girls have decided independently to run away?
- Did they plan this together beforehand?
- Did McCraw know (by overhearing them or otherwise) that the three planned to escape and decided to join them?
- Did she go after the three for her own nefarious reasons?
- Did they lure her into the wilderness for their own nefarious reasons?
These are the questions that made Picnic at Hanging Rock a bestseller in the 1960s and have kept it in print ever since.
It’s a beguiling book with its mysteries intact.
The reader in me would like to pretend it never surfaced and let the mysteries of Lindsay’s published book linger on.
But the reporter/historian in me wants to know (a) what got left out and (b) — OK, I admit it — the answers to those mysteries.
Maybe, if you read Picnic at Hanging Rock, you’ll just leave it at that.
I don’t think I can.
Patrick T. Reardon