Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, Lindsay’s uniquely Australian story feels just as fresh as the day it was first published, standing as an artistic examination of the frontier days of a still-largely-untamed land. The boarders at Mrs. Appleyard College for Young Ladies look forward to the long-awaited annual picnic. Just before they set off, “ample-bosomed” Mrs. Appleyard tells the girls that the Rock itself is a geological marvel but also extremely dangerous. The girls must take care and obey
direction from their teachers, Greta McGraw, the purveyor of higher mathematics, and French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitiers.
As the party gets closer, the pinnacled grey volcanic
slab of Hanging Rock appears “like a fortress from the empty hollow plain.” The Rock, millions of years old and apparently bare of living vegetation, appears as
a jagged line across the serene blue of the sky. The three senior girls--beautiful Miranda, Marion
(the only member of the class to take Pythagoras in her stride), and black-ringleted Irma are seduced by its beauty. Mademoiselle de Poitiers watches entranced as the four girls walk off toward the creek. Miranda, a little ahead, glides through tall grasses, while Marion and Irma follow arm in arm,
and overweight Edith bumbles along in the rear.
The girls are insulated from the natural world of earth, air, and sun. As they free themselves from their corsets, voluminous petticoats, and cotton stockings, time seems to stop. Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith follow the winding course of the creek, watched by the slender and fair Michael Fitzhubert and Albert, his boyish, dark-haired coachman. For Michael and Albert,
the Rock remains tantalizingly hidden. When Michael comes out of the first belt of trees, he looks upon the vertical face of the Rock and wonders how far the four girls will go before they are forced to turn back.
After Miranda, Marion, Irma, and Greta McGraw go missing, the focus is on the lives of various individuals caught up in the ensuing scandal. As the search headed by Constable Bumpher unfolds, Lindsay plunges us into a world filled with Victorian otherworldliness. Back at Appleyard College, Sunday the 15th of February is a day of nightmare indecision, half dream and half reality, alternating, according to temperament, “between wild rocketing hopes and sinking fears.” While tight-lipped Mrs. Appleyard struggles to make sense of the tragedy, her first concern is to ensure that nothing of yesterday’s happenings will be so much as whispered beyond the College walls. Unfortunately, the disaster magnifies her grudge against Sara, the poorest of her students and the youngest boarder.
There are hints to the quality of the love relationship between Sara and Miranda. Far from just a “schoolgirl crush,” Sara’s relationship with Miranda
clearly means so much more to Sara. From Mrs. Appleyard’s obsession with Greta to Michael and Albert, whose attraction is masked by propriety, the story seems propelled by closeted same-sex attraction. Lindsay leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Hanging Rock is considered sacred to the aboriginal people; was it angry gods who stole the girls away? Did they run away together or with lovers? Perhaps their disappearance was an
illusion, a gap in the order of the space-time continuum. Miranda herself seems to realize this. She becomes a “dazzling rainbow” that echoes throughout. The simultaneously immense and claustrophobic Rock itself is ever-present, a vast, luminous shadow that crosses the picnic site and shimmers out onto the vast Macedon plain.
While Constable Bumpher attempts to interview Edith, desperate for learn what she saw that afternoon on the Rock, Michael and Albert set off on their own personal mission to find the lost girls. The longer the girls remain missing, the more tensions at Appleyard College build, until everything threatens to explode in a conflagration that claims even more lives. From the valuable clue of the missing corset--never followed up and not communicated to the police--to the front-page news that embellishes the wildest flights of public and private imagination, Lindsay’s story unfolds in an eerie, contemplative tone
as her pampered Victorian characters confront their repressed sexuality and seek to break free from stifling formality in a dangerous and unforgiving frontier world.
The genius of the novel lies this juxtaposition of 19th-century life with the feral, untamed land that exists just outside the confines of Appleyard College. But the mystery extends beyond this allegory
to become a study of what happens when beauty and terror collide, powerful enough to propel forwards the mystery of what really happened to Miranda, Marion, and Greta McGraw on that beautiful, fateful day.