not in our stars, but in ourselves
Long-time readers, or those who know me outside the shapeless bog that is the internet, may recall that I lived in Melbourne, Australia from February 2011 until February 2013. Boston, when I left it, had just been through a blizzard a week for several weeks in a row, and was typically grey, dirty, dark and cold; and then I landed at Tullamarine, where the summer sky seemed measurably bigger and higher, where misty mornings gave way to white-hot afternoons, where the pace was slower and more languorous than anything I – an impatient New Englander who was accustomed to hurrying from place to place in order to escape the usually inclement weather – had ever experienced. There were palm trees, gumtrees, plane trees; rosellas, galahs, magpies; in short, some exotic stuff, compared to the squirrels and sparrows I’d grown up with. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back in the States, so the unique sensation of summer in Australia had begun to fade from my memory – but Picnic at Hanging Rock brought it back with almost hallucinatory force.
On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the young ladies of Appleyard College prepare for a lazy picnic at Hanging Rock. Their headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), warns them all to be not only well-behaved and ladylike on their outing, but also careful: Hanging Rock is quite dangerous, full of snakes and insects and all kinds of other treachery. Except for destitute, orphaned Sara (Margaret Nelson) – whom Mrs. Appleyard holds back – all the girls depart excitedly for their day out in the bush. They’re chaperoned by the severe spinster Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) and the kinder, younger Mlle de Poitiers (Helen Morse). After everyone has eaten lunch, four girls ask Mademoiselle if they can go explore the base of the rock: lovely blonde Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), stunning brunette Irma (Karen Robson), reedy intellectual Marion (Jane Vallis), and chubby little Edith (Christine Schuler). Mademoiselle assents, and the girls go traipsing off into the woods. They pass a wealthy Brit, Michael (Dominic Guard), and his bogan horseman, Albert (John Jarrett), both of whom are quite taken with Miranda and Irma. The girls continue to the Rock, climbing higher and higher, led on by Miranda. She, Irma, and Marion all remove their stockings and shoes and slip up through a narrow crevice toward the top of the Rock. Edith runs screaming back down to the camp – noting that Miss McCraw, clad in her knickers alone, is running up the Rock. The party returns to the College, and the search begins. Neither the police, nor the townsmen, nor the bloodhounds are able to find a trace of any of the girls. Michael takes it on himself to search the Rock. He stays there all night, and is delirious by the time Albert returns to find him. Albert decides to investigate the Rock, and finds a badly bruised, unconscious Irma. When she recovers, she doesn’t remember anything about what happened. Parents begin pulling their children from the College, and Mrs. Appleyard is faced with ruin. She (likely – it’s never shown whether the poor girl jumps or is pushed) kills Sara by throwing her out a window. Mrs. Appleyard then goes to the Rock herself, where her body is found at the bottom on Easter Day. The remaining two girls, plus Miss McCraw, are never found.
Several reviewers and writers – Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby, and Megan Abbott – have noted that the film induces in the viewer the same effect suffered by characters within it: frustration, denied resolution, what we might as well call a lack of consummation. That’s true for some of the characters, with whom I guess we’re meant to identify. The older women at Appleyard College – Mrs. Appleyard, Miss McCraw, and Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child) – all seem to be devoured from the inside by their nonexistent sex lives. Miss McCraw copes by describing the Rock in distinctly erotic terms; Miss Lumley copes by picking on probable lesbian Sara; Mrs. Appleyard simply doesn’t cope. And among the girls, Sara and Edith especially seem to be unprepared for or frightened of their burgeoning sexuality. Sara has conflated her need for love with her admiration of Miranda, and has built her up into a sort of idealized crush – her own sort of Beatrice. Edith wants to tag along with the others, like a little child, but she’s downright terrified when their “play” turns into some kind of sapphic coven. For these women, either at the start or the end of their sexual lives, there’s nothing but unrealized longing, unknowable truth, unfulfilled desire. Ditto for the average audience member.
What about the other girls, though? What about the mysterious, nymphlike Miranda, Irma, and Marion? If we think of the older women and the plainer two girls as representative of the patriarchy’s effect on femininity, we can think of these three as representative of an older, more feminine, more enigmatic relationship with the world. It’s no accident that we see how easily they ascend the Rock, seeming almost to float all the way to the top; and then, by comparison, how clumsily both Michael and Albert try to claw their way up, struggling to find their footing. Australia is a very old place, and Picnic at Hanging Rock draws distinct comparisons between all the attempts at civilization – teatime, string quartets, portraits of Queen Victoria, corsets and parasols – and the sunburnt country itself. Dreamy, ethereal Miranda seems like a sprite who belongs in this ancient world, and she brings along two handmaidens as she returns to it. We never find out why Irma fails to join Miranda and Marion in their journey to whatever their final destination may be; it seems likely, however, that she’ll fail to feel quite right anywhere after this. We can imagine that, perhaps, Miranda and Marion have become one with nature. Irma was violated by it. Before she leaves Appleyard College to join her family in Europe, she wears a red cloak and cap. Her fellow classmates – like hens at a pecking party – scream at her to tell her what happened, to share with them what she knows. Hysterical virgins, one and all, clawing at the one they see as having carnal knowledge.
There are no answers, of course. Maybe the girls fell into a crevice in the Rock. Maybe they were attacked by wild animals. Maybe they were abducted. Maybe they turned into a couple of trees, like Daphne. Who knows. It doesn’t matter, really. They set out to find answers; the rest of us didn’t. They know the secret. We never will.