In short, this is a very queer and perverse book. I was quite surprised by the tone and style of the writing, which is quite baroque and artificial. It seems to almost parody itself in its flamboyance and flowery descriptions. Before you even get to the novel proper, you’re given a dramatis personae of all the characters, as if you were reading something stagy like a play.
In fact, I note that political sketch writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Annabel Crabb, purloined a line or two to lampoon Kim Beazley in her book on the Labor party in opposition, Losing It.
"That night – Wednesday 4th June – the busy main strip of the Manuka dining precinct was treated to the comparatively rare sight of Kim Beazley, propelling himself along the footpath with all the inconspicuousness of a Spanish galleon in full sail."
Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock:
"Now an immense purposeful figure was swimming and billowing in grey silk taffeta on to a tiled and colonnaded verandah, like a galleon in full sail."
Lindsay is describing the appearance of Mrs Appleyard, head mistress at Appleyard College. In fact, much of Annabel Crabb’s humorous writing style you can see must come from Joan Lindsay.
The only mystery for me with Picnic at Hanging Rock is why it’s gained such a reputation for being a true story. I too thought it was a true story until only recently. However, I don’t see how anyone after they’ve read the actual text could entertain such an idea. It’s wilfully over the top and self dramatising. Read in a particular way, it comes across almost as black comedy. (Even the deaths must be treated exotically. Sara Waybourne’s corpse gets a gala treatment, her body found in a beautiful garden bed; Dora Lumley and her brother Reg’s death by accidental fire come across as another comic travesty.)
When the indomitable Mrs Appleyard must write letters to the parents of the missing girls, rather than be consumed by grief at the looming tragedy, she rather angrily laments losing some of her best pupils, and the academic reputation of the college sliding with the disappeared girls. Then Mrs Appleyard goes on to wish that the college dunce, Edith Horton, had gone missing instead!
Still not satisfied with these impure thoughts, Mrs Appleyard lambasts Greta McCraw, the missing mathematics mistress. In another humourous passage, witness statements are taken from girls who last saw Greta McCraw talking ‘wildly of triangles and short cuts.’
Lindsay obviously relishes these kinds of ironies, a maths teacher getting lost. By the time I got to the end of the novel, I thought that Picnic at Hanging Rock was perhaps Lindsay’s revenge on Clyde Girls’ Grammar, which she attended as a day-girl in St Kilda. What else can explain the way the author describes in such a feast of language the slow and mad disintegration of Appleyard College and its head mistress?
Mrs Appleyard herself almost reminded me of something out of a Jean Genet play, like Madame out of The Maids. She is described as amazingly steely, but unable to control fate and destiny. (She likes to tipple on whisky in private.)
Check this quote out:
"For the first time in many weeks she thought of the mathematics mistress and brought her fist down on the dressing-table with such force that the combs and brushes and curling pins danced on its polished surface It was inconceivable that this woman of masculine intellect on whom she had come to rely in the last years should have allowed herself to be spirited away, lost, raped, murdered in cold blood like an innocent school girl, on the Hanging Rock."
Mrs Appleyard is clearly a nut case! What fun Joan Lindsay must have had lampooning some old headmistress that drove her crazy at Clyde Girls’ Grammar. But wait, there’s more! Lindsay finishes off the mad woman by hurling her off Hanging Rock in a comic, ludicrous death scene. A spider at the scene is smart enough to scuttle away to safety. It’s the kind of macabre comedy that the poet Emily Dickinson would have concocted.
"An eagle hovering high above the golden peaks heard her scream as she ran towards the precipice and jumped. The spider scuttled to safety as the clumsy body went bouncing and rolling from rock to rock towards the valley below. Until at last the head in the brown hat was impaled upon a jutting crag."
This is the kind of finish the Marquis de Sade would have given his Justine, a perpetual victim. Boing, boing, boing, splat! Mrs Appleyard starts out as an imperious Sadeian heroine, but is in turn victimised by nature itself.
Madness, fate, nature, the inability to control all, finally consumes the head mistress.
Jean Genet wrote in one of his novels that the only way to avoid the horror of horror was to give into it. I think this is what Mrs Appleyard is forced to do.