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Some Penguin Classics serve as enjoyable reminders that more things in Heaven and Earth fall under the heading of “classic” than the usual lineup of Dickens and Austen. Penguin has always been good about this, and in the last twenty years or so they’ve improved even on their own track record, sometimes with questionable results (Wellington’s military dispatches? The Domesday Book?), and sometimes with cheering ones (never too soon for the complete back-catalogue of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance), but the latest example feels long overdue for the American Penguin catalogue: it’s Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.

This book surely holds the record for the sheer number of different editions accumulated before its canonical black-spine Penguin Classics debut. Since its first appearance, it’s been a hit with readers – a success that was only amplified by the 1975 Peter Weir movie adaptation (a still from which serves as this edition’s cover illustration). An entire generation of Australian readers grew up with this novel, which is set on a hot, bright summer day in the year 1900. Some young women from Appleyard College for Young Ladies are taken on a picnic, driving some distance to wild, secluded Hanging Rock. “Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool,” the text laconically tells us, “they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon.”

Three of the young ladies decide to hike up the rock. Readers have already been given ample hints by the author that this is probably not a good idea. Even while the picnic party is still on the way to its destination, the first view we get of Hanging Rock itself is wreathed in ominous language:

Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.

The three are never seen again, and that deceptively simple fact is the engine that drives the entire book: what exactly happened at Hanging Rock that day? Right from the start, readers wanted to know the answer, and they were not-so-subtly nudged in that direction by the Sphinx-like note Lindsay attached to the beginning of the book:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the character who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Needless to say, a note like that was bound to increase exactly the kind of curiositypenguin picnic it pretends to want to calm. Readers trekked out to Hanging Rock, and they pored through all available old newspapers in search of some hint of a genuine disappearance around which Lindsay might have built her story. It’s pretty clear from even a single reading of the book that this was exactly the reaction its author wanted to inspire, a slow-boil confusion of reality and fantasy exactly mirroring the strange events of that picnic day. The move gives the whole story a delicious element of folk-tale: Three Young Women Disappear – The End.

After a lifetime of doing other things, Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in her sixties, and she wrote it at a dash, finishing the manuscript in a matter of weeks. And she herself was endlessly quizzed by readers about possible real-life resolutions to her story, including questions put to her by perhaps her highest-profile reader, as we’re told in the brief Introduction written by novelist Maile Meloy:

The mystery of what happened goes unsolved in the novel, and Lindsay remained elusive about the possibility that it was a true story. When director Peter Weir asked her for the film rights to make his 1975 movie adaptation, he was warned not to ask if there had been a real disappearance, but he did anyway. Lady Lindsay – her husband, Daryl, had been knighted for services to the arts – said she hoped he wouldn’t ask again. So Weir asked instead if the question of what happened to the girls was open-ended. Could they have fallen down a hole or been abducted by aliens? She said yes, it could have been any of the above.

(Meloy includes the detail that Lindsay’s original manuscript actually included a final-chapter explanation, which the manuscript’s editor cut – perhaps on grounds of its excessive loopiness, although there’s also no denying that the book is much stronger without a solution regardless of what that solution is).

It was a bit sobering to encounter Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in a 2017 American-edition Penguin Classic, but that’s exactly what I did, and I loved both the book itself and the experience of for once being squarely in the recipient-zone for Penguin’s great mission of spreading the word. It was both exciting and oddly humbling to know I was reading for the first time a book that had already been read, re-read, and loved by thousands and thousands of people, a book that’s a canonical classic in a country I’ve never visited and will never see. It’s been the highlight of my recent Penguin-reading experience.

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© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue