On St Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls and their mistresses went for a picnic to Hanging Rock in country Victoria, Australia. Three girls and one mistress vanished while walking on the Rock. A week later, one of the girls was found, alive but unconscious, and with no memory of what had happened.
The rest were never seen again.
The mystery of what happened that day was immortalised in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, and, most famously, by Peter Weir in his 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The film made stars of everyone involved, was a worldwide hit and promptly lodged itself deep in the pysche of every Australian. Today, all it takes is the first notes of the pan pipes from the famous soundtrack and a nation is transported to that drowsy day in the thick of the Australian summer long ago.
This post and the next tells the story of the girls as imagined by Peter Weir, and speculates about the reasons why his film acted so strongly on the Australian psyche.
They got to the picnic ground around noon in Mr Hussey’s trap, hired from the local town of Woodend for the expedition.
One of the girls, seated on the box next to Mr Hussey, read from a book about the local landmark, “Hanging Rock is a distinctive geographical formation which is over six million years old.”
“Just think,” says another,
six million years, and waiting just for us.
They set up their picnic at the foot of the monolith and spend a few hours eating, reading and sleeping in the afternoon heat. There is another party further down the stream, a young English officer on leave, Mr Michael Fitzhubert, with his father and his valet.
Mr Hussey wakes from his doze with a start. He consults his watch, and finds to his surprise it has stopped. Miss McGraw, a middle-aged mathematics mistress, hearing his puzzlement, looks at hers.
Extraordinary; mine has stopped too.
Soon after, the darling of the school, Miranda, with her friends Irma and Marion, asks the young French mistress, Mademoiselle de Poitiers, if they can go for a walk around the rock. “Yes, but be careful.”
As Miranda turns to go, Mlle de Poitiers, glancing from her face to the art book she has been reading, gasps and whispers,
But, of course, now I know.
“What do you know?” asks Miss McGraw.
“That Miranda is a Botticelli angel.”
The girls, in their white muslin dresses, set off walking through the bush towards the rock formation. Edith, a plain and unpopular girl, follows them. Michael Fitzhubert and the valet watch them jump across the stream. “I like the little dark one,” says the valet as Irma jumps, but Fitzhubert is silent, staring as Miranda gathers her skirts, looks backward for a moment and then sails across.
The girls start climbing upward, through the grasses and rocks. Edith starts complaining, “Miranda, come back. I’m getting tired.” They keep climbing.
At some point, they lay down on the rock for a rest, and Edith, who has dozed off for a few minutes, awakes to see the other three heading upward again, this time without their boots and stockings which they are holding. Edith becomes frightened, and starts screaming at them to come back, but they keep climbing, silent and intent.
Edith becomes more frightened and turns back. A little while later, she emerges running from the bush, screaming and hysterical.
Mlle de Poitiers slaps her to try and calm her, and asks after the others. She can get no sense out of her. And then she giggles,
But I did see Miss McGraw.
Why are you laughing? What’s funny?
Miss McGraw was funny.
How? What do you mean, funny?
Edith giggles again, and whispers in Mlle de Poitiers’s ear.
“What?” says Mlle de Poitiers, shocked and confused, “she was not wearing … les pantalons?”
Late that night, much later than planned, Mr Hussey drives the trap to the front steps of the girls’ boarding school. The girls, crying and dishevelled, are brought out and wrapped in blankets by the staff, and Mlle de Poitiers looks up to find the Headmistress, Mrs Appleyard, in her bombazine and tight bun, waiting for her.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demands icily, and Mlle de Poitiers must tell her that three girls and Miss McGraw are missing on the rock. “Greta McGraw,” Mrs Appleyard, says, astounded, “missing?”
To be contd …
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