Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

24.8.12

A Tale of Two Picnics.

I borrowed a hardback copy of Picnic at Hanging Rock from Essendon library in the middle of winter in 1972. Then officially the Moonee Valley Regional Library Service, the library is known today as the Sam Merrifield library, making it sound like a collection of resources for Tolkien enthusiasts.

At the time, Picnic at Hanging Rock was an obscure novelette by Joan Lindsay, who wrote no other fiction, even prefacing her 1967 book with a note suggesting it was based on real events. For a book of little note, its atmosphere was compelling. It was creepy. It verged on horror. Bad things happened. A sense of evil was knotted into the beauty of every interior and exterior scene. The sad mansion in the country, built on gold money, and abandoned. The garden under blazing sunshine. The brooding mountain.

Appleyard College was already, in the year nineteen hundred, an architectural anachronism in the Australian bush – a hopeless misfit in time and place. The clumsy two-storey mansion was one of those elaborate mansions that sprang up all over Australia like exotic fungi following the finding of gold. Why this particular stretch of flat sparsely wooded country, a few miles out of the village of Macedon crouching at the foot of the mount, had been selected as a suitable building site, nobody will ever know. The insignificant creek that meandered in a series of shallow pools down the slope at the rear of the ten acre property offered little inducement as a setting for an Italianate mansion; nor the occasional glimpse, through a screen of stringy-barked eucalyptus, of the misty summit of Mount Macedon rising up to the east on the opposite side of the road. ... The original owner, whose name is long ago forgotten, had only lived in it for a year or two before the huge ugly house was standing empty and up for sale.
Did the original owner die? Who knows? It is not said. The book is wrought from decay and death and half-remembered incidents and things out of place and out of order. Especially time.
... The hideous Victorian furnishings were as good as new, with marble mantelpieces from Italy and thick piled carpets from Axminster. The oil lamps on the cedar staircase were held aloft by classical statues, there was a grand piano in the long drawing room, and even a square tower, reached by a narrow circular staircase ...
I read the book in a few days, and returned it. Shortly after, I was invited to a picnic – coincidentally to be held at Hanging Rock – with a group of fifteen or twenty, a youth group from the parish, during the school holidays, on Thursday 24 August 1972.

Seeing the Rock was like walking into the book. It loomed straight up out of deep shadow and from an inviting entrance point down below in the shadow, you could climb easily and somewhat misleadingly, until you reached an altitude where there were myriad pathways and confusing access points between columns and pinnacles left over from a magma outpouring 6.5 million years ago. It was made to get lost in. If you climbed across an outcrop, you could look down at the ground – now very far away – and at people who looked like ants, not just because of their size, but because they had to walk single file up into the dark narrow entrance.

A few years later, they made the novel into a movie. It changed the Rock, which became a tourist attraction instead of a little known picnic spot. It also changed the book, later editions of which were covered with soft-focus stills from the film of impossibly corseted, hatted, white-laced actresses confronting the Australian bush, like Jane Austen meets Wake in Fright. But it wasn't a costume drama, and it wasn't a horror story. It was a 1960s interpretation of the pretentious sobriety of the late Victorian era. Some of its best parts are the descriptions of the mansion by night, when the girl pupils are missing, feared lost, feared dead; and you feel the emptiness like a dead weight. There is no-one in the mansion except the Headmistress. Who drinks.

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