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Picnic at Hanging Rock is the Perfect Quarantine Novel

Why you should be reading classic Australian literature in quarantine.
May 30, 2020
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the Perfect Quarantine Novel
Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975 Australia, Directed by Peter Weir (Photo courtesy of Photofest)

As the pandemic continues to keep people homebound and cripple businesses, the already fragile book industry is facing declines in sales like all the rest. On top of lost revenue, there is the never-ending fight for peoples’ attention as the burdens and stresses of quarantine have led to fatigue and dependence on screens for diversion. Even for the most seasoned and dedicated of readers for whom undistracted reading is never an issue, pandemic-induced anxiety is leading to impaired attention limiting their ability to focus or read.

Nevertheless, recommendations persist. In March, LitHub’s editors began a project calling for people to submit their favorite books in order to receive personalized reading recommendations. In the first round, Emily Temple recommended Picnic at Hanging Rock for reader Aimee P. who loves Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Midsommar, the popular horror film from earlier this year. Her recommendation surpasses the school-yard mystery genre and while it is not quite horror, it is perfect, both for the place among the books that prompted it and the pandemic.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of the disappearance of four Australian school girls from a class trip. It is a mystery and also a work of historical fiction blurring the lines between the real and imagined. The story is laced with erotic tension—school girls in restrictive Victorian uniforms versus the wild of the Australian Bush, the hunt of lost versus found, etc. The story does not suggest that the girls are abducted, but that they are called or compelled by some force the deeper they go into the Bush. The novel is set against the backdrop of Hanging Rock, a monolith and former volcano of spiritual significance to Aboriginal tribes displaced in the 19th century by settler-colonists. The book is considered an Australian classic and was adapted to film in 1975, directed by Peter Weir. Most recently, Amazon also released a mini-series adaptation starring Natalie Dormer with an expanded backstory departing from the original text (I do not recommend the mini-series—I mention it only as evidence of the story’s staying power).

Upon the 50th anniversary re-release by Penguin in 2018, Jia Tolentino, the zeitgeist-essay It-girl of our time recommended it:

I picked up the book because I suspected it would help address a desire I’ve been having lately, to lie down for hours in a hot secluded garden, crushing flower petals under my skin. It did. Just before the girls disappear, they’re “overcome by an overpowering lassitude,” and they fling themselves onto the rock and fall asleep. Lizards and beetles crawl over them, and the scene is “beautiful and complete.”

As quarantine lags on, another kind of lassitude has taken hold of many. While our fatigue is less romantic, the sense of danger and its closeness is eerily similar. The sense of stasis allowing for nature to creep back, while threatening and indefinite in the novel, is treated as meme today as the internet churns so many earnest sentiments into glib coping devices: “Nature is healing. We are the virus,” and other such slogans are oft tweeted and circulated with exemplar stories or in sarcastic comments. Nonetheless, as we grieve a summer lost to tragedy, the parallel of the story’s struggle with a shadowy natural force beyond comprehension is strangely satisfying in its mystery and handling of the unknown.

There is also something uncanny about the timeline of the book. Beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on Easter, the ‘College Mystery’ of the Applewood School for Girls mirrors the president’s wishfully asserted narrative that America would be free of the virus and reopening on April 15. That obviously wasn’t the case. And so too, the ending of the novel is unresolved. The girls are still missing after the final page and any number of people from the cast die in the shadow of Hanging Rock.

A reoccurring aspect of the story is that time seems to stop, clocks break, or the passing of time is indeterminate. After spending prolonged time in the Bush searching for the girls, one of the characters begins to experience an altered sense of reality: “the timeless days melted imperceptibly into timeless nights. Sleeping or waking it made no difference in the dim grey regions where he was forever seeking the unknown nameless thing. Invariably it vanished just as he drew near.” This is a prevailing aspect of time under lockdown as well.

In 2019, Katherine Miller wrote “The 2010s Have Broken Our Sense of Time” and so they did. The beginning of the new decade seems to be only magnifying the phenomenon she documents. Miller makes the observation that Trump is “the man for a moment of algorithmic timelines.” But it has come to pass that he is not the man for a moment of logarithmic timelines. Like many, Miller has also written about the peculiarity of time under quarantine, calling it “surreal.” She focused on novels as well for a way to navigate the haze of loneliness and longing for certainty. “The beauty of novels, actually, is that they offer endings, even the ones that slip any kind of conclusion. … The lack of resolution is the resolution,” she concludes. As we find ourselves waiting for resolution or closure to the crisis, the sense that time has warped continues as the months seem to contract and expand.

The other major themes of the book deal with nature, repression, and power. These, too, are foils for the pandemic. Notably, the plight of the Aborigines is entirely ignored in the book, not unlike the lack of government attention paid to Native Americans—the Navajo Nation has surpassed New York for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in America.

There are several antagonists in Picnic at Hanging Rock. The most basic and obvious is the headmistress of the school, a figure of control and inadequate compassion. The next is the lurking, mystical danger of the Hanging Rock which seems to lure the girls away from safety. Then the galaxy-brain villain is the British colonizers being there in Australia in the first place, trespassing on sacred land. The villains of the pandemic depend on perspective as well: there are the minor characters who eschew civic responsibility and protest the measures being taken to save lives, then the larger failings of authority, and again a galaxy-brain question of the virus’s origin remains contentious as to whether or not it was a natural phenomenon or act of negligence (or even malice) unleashed on the world.

But perhaps the most surprisingly relatable element of the story is a vein of astute media commentary and criticism. At the outset of the girls’ disappearance the narrator remarks, “As always, in matters of surpassing human interest, those who knew nothing whatever either at first or second hand were the most emphatic in expressing their opinions; which are well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.” An observation easily applied to our current media landscape. Later when one of the girls is recovered, again press attention bares down on the school. “Strong-minded persons in authority can ordinarily grapple with practical problems of facts. Facts no matter how outrageous can be dealt with by other facts,” the narrator explains. “The problems of mood and atmosphere known to the Press as ‘Situations’ are infinitely more sinister.” Substitute ‘situations’ for ‘narratives’ and this can be directly applied today.

If you still aren’t convinced it is a book for our times, what better example of social distancing than walking off into the forest bush never to be seen again?

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.