Like most Australian’s, during my childhood, I spent many days and nights reading ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. It was a part of the school curriculum with many book reports required and for those that cheated, you would have seen the movie as well. It is an intriguing story of a group of female students who went missing on a school trip to Hanging Rock on Valentines day. To say that this is an iconic novel would be an understatement. It is widely considered to be one of the most important Australian novels of all time. It is also often widely debated. While it is a fictional story, it has become the discussion and creation of much folklore. With a cryptic forward at the beginning of the book, there is no wonder:
"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 characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important."
The story was written by author and painter Lady Joan Lindsay after receiving psychic visions in her dreams every night over a period of 2 weeks which helped her to frame the story. Was this a purely fictional tale or were the visions Lindsay received real? With a 2018 adaptation coming to our tv screens, you can expect to see a lot of more about Picnic at Hanging Rock in the coming months. The amazing thing is, for those in Melbourne Australia, you don’t have to look to far, because everything we need to know is right at our doorstep. Lindsay’s residence where she wrote this iconic book still stands today – Mulberry Hill.
Lady Joan Lindsay (nee Weigall) was born 16th November 1896. She was an Australian novelist, playwright, essayist and a visual artist. Born in St Kilda Melbourne, she was the daughter of a prominent judge and grandfather was the Governor of Tasmania. Spending her early years at boarding school, she went on to study art and enrolled with the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. She shared a studio and would exhibit her artwork in the 1920’s. It was during art school that she met her husband Daryl and they wed on Valentines Day in 1922. They renovated an old farm house in Baxter Victoria and affectionately named it Mulberry Hill. During the great depression, they were forced to move and rent it out until finances improved. It was during this time that Joan focused on writing instead of painting. Several works were published as well as their eventual return to Mulberry Hill when her husband went on to become Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. He was knighted in 1956 and Joan became Lady Joan Lindsay. Daryl died on Christmas day in 1976. Joan never remarried and even downgraded her four poster marital bed down to 2 modest single beds in their bedroom. His picture still sits on her nightstand. She threw herself into her writing and painting and in 1967 published the widely acclaimed ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. Joan passed away on 23rd December 1984 of Stomach Cancer. As her and her husband never had children, the property was donated to the National Trust of Victoria where it still sits today. What I find absolutely fascinating is that all of the belongings and furniture still remain as it was the day she left. Her slippers are still at the foot of her bed. Her dentures and glasses still sit in her nightstand. Her husband’s day suit is still hanging in the wardrobe. Her studio remains as it well, complete with the typewriter she used to write the novel.
Joan herself had a deep interest in spiritualism but supposedly did not like to show that side in front of her husband who did not believe in these things.. Visiting her house, there are hints of this. The beds in her master bedroom are aligned in an odd position. They are in a specific spot at a specific angle for the best Feng Shui. In her office, papers are held down with a large rose quartz crystal paper weight. Her friends described her as a mystic. They said she knew things without being told. She knew things from the past and also what would happen in the future. It is also said that she could communicate with those who had passed on and had this gift since the age of 3 years. This is all according to her close friend Colin Caldwell. During the filming of the film adaption in the mid 1970’s strange things happened on the set, which all seemed to be centred around Joan. The filming of course took place at Hanging Rock where Joan had holidayed in her youth. The film’s creator noted that the first time she approached Hanging Rock, her watch mysteriously stopped. This happened several times during filming either at the Rock or whenever she was around Joan.
The final question we have that will never be answered, is this story true? In the words of Joan Lindsay: ‘Some of it is true, some of it isn’t’. It is up for you to decide! At 9:30am on a normal day in 1966, Joan sat down as she did every day to start her writing. It was very wintery outside and the perfect day to sit inside and write. The night before Joan had a vivid dream she thought would make a good story. It cenetered on a picnic during summer at Hanging Rock which was a place Joan had holidayed in as a child. The dream was so vivid, when Joan awoke at 7:30am, she could still feel the summer breeze on her face (even though it was winter and freezing outside). The dream and characters were so real and vivid to her, that she had the basic plot completed by midday. The entire book was written over a period of only 2 weeks. Every inch of Joan was involved in this story. Every night when she went to sleep, more of the story would play out in her dreams. Joan told her housekeeper that she didn't know why the dreams were coming to her, but she didn't care. She had to tell this story, and that she did. With her psychic connections and abilities, were these dreams just dreams or were they a message from the other side? The fact is that Joan had always wanted to write a story centered around Hanging Rock - a spot she remembers well as a child. Was it that she just finally found her inspiration? We will never know for sure.
I encourage anyone to go an visit this amazing property. There is so much history here and the fact that everything is completely 100% original is what makes it so unique. Most historical properties have been restored complete with donated furniture. This house is as it was left. It is like Lady Joan and Sir Daryl could walk through the door at any moment, and they would have everything that they need. You feel a sense of home here.
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