Beyond The Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic At Hanging Rock

Janelle McCulloch

Beyond The Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic At Hanging Rock
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Beyond The Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic At Hanging Rock

Janelle McCulloch

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Joan Lindsay’s writing of Picnic at Hanging Rock

In the winter of 1966, at sixty-nine years of age, Lady Joan Lindsay sat down and wrote a short novel about a group of upper-class schoolgirls from a prestigious ladies' college who disappear while on a country picnic in the summer of 1900. The result was Picnic at Hanging Rock, a literary mystery that has endured for half a century.

Beyond the Rock looks at not just the myth of Picnic and how it has become part of Australia’s culture, but also the story behind it. It examines Joan Lindsay’s enigmatic life, much of which she kept secret from the world, including her childhood, her complex marriage to Daryl Lindsay of the famous Lindsay family of artists, their enduring love and unconventional bohemian life, and her life at Mulberry Hill, the Lindsays' own Arcadia deep in the Victorian countryside.

This is the story of one of Australia’s most famous novels, and the author who kept its secrets until she died.

Review

Just like Janelle McCulloch, the author of Beyond the Rock (about Lady Joan Lindsay and her masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock), I too have been captivated by the story of that fateful Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900, ever since I first saw Peter Weir’s film adaptation when I was a young girl. That haunting blend of the beautiful and the sinister stayed with me when I read the book for the first time, with Lindsay’s exquisite prose juxtaposing the young fragile schoolgirls with the harsh Australian landscape.

Fifty years after the publication of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Beyond the Rock is an absolute treat for those whose obsession with the story has not waned. The result of five years of research through public and private archives (many untouched for over 30 years), this is a beautifully presented book full of details and visuals of Lindsay’s life. Significant also is the information drawn from a number of interviews and conversations; from housekeepers to film producers, artists to park rangers – all have their story to tell (some perhaps more convincing than others, but absorbing just the same).

Beyond the Rock is essentially a chronological retelling of Joan Lindsay’s life, but with specific attention given to those events and influences that preceded the writing of her famous novel at the age of 69. It covers everything from her time at art school under the instruction of Frederick McCubbin, her attendance at Clyde school (which many saw as the template for the fictional Appleyard College) through to her marriage to Daryl Lindsay and their beloved home, Mulberry Hill, on the Mornington Peninsula.

The big question for many, however, remains: Was the story real? What is fact and what is fiction? Although this book may help some to reach their own conclusions, I find myself rather inspired by Lindsay’s own question: Why do we have to understand everything? Personally I think there will always be a veil of mystery over Picnic at Hanging Rock. I also think that’s how Lindsay would have liked it.


Amanda Rayner works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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