Gothic Representations of Colonisation in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967)

Sarah McFee is a MA English graduate from Teesside University. Her research focuses primarily on speculative fiction including portrayals of disability in the Victorian Gothic, and representations and constructions of gender and race in Neo-Victorian fiction. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

From the sixteenth century onwards, Britain built a global Empire. It enacted economic and military control over less powerful countries and ultimately overpowered the native people of those lands. During the years 1606-1770, the British Empire began to colonise Australia with the first colony officially established in 1788. British colonialism has inspired many novels aiming to justify the actions of the British but there are also texts that expose their racist views and actions and how they perceived the natives of other countries as inferior and primitive.

Postcolonial literature helps give voice to the colonised subject and highlights the racist behaviour that the colonisers displayed whilst simultaneously educating readers on the cultural and religious beliefs of other countries. Some postcolonial texts such as Picnic at Hanging Rock utilise Gothic tropes such as ‘uncanny’ familiarity and natural mysterious landscapes to reveal both the perspective of the colonised subject and also settlers’ fears regarding new and unexplored lands.

Set in the year 1900, Picnic tells the story of a group of predominantly British female students living in a boarding school in Australia who visit the famous but mysterious Hanging Rock. Their picnic trip to the Rock then becomes the catalyst for many strange and frightening events. Most of the students fall asleep after their meal, and when they awaken, some students have unexplainably disappeared and peculiar things begin to happen.

The landscape of Australia was a source of anxiety for the British settlers. The country is vast and a lot is uninhabitable, and when the British first colonised Australia, it would have been a stark contrast to the bustling, populated land of England. The image of travelling for hours across a deserted, repetitive landscape moving deeper into the unknown is a typical Gothic trope. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben believe that both vast and claustrophobic spaces within Australian fiction are a threat towards colonisers as “the invaders seek to penetrate something they can never understand […] the imperialists are othered as violators of the natural world and its rightful inhabitants”.[1] Because of the control settlers imposed upon landscapes and people, postcolonial Gothic texts utilise descriptions of the natural environment to emphasise both the contrast between white people’s determination to control other countries in parallel to the anger of the colonised at their lack of control over their own land. Unpredictable weather and dangerous scenery can thus be seen as representing native people’s frustration at their unjust treatment.

The setting of the Rock itself within Joan Lindsay’s novel is a dangerous and unpredictable place. The children are curious about it and there is a feeling of impending doom when they begin to climb the precipice: “There are no tracks on this part of the Rock. Or if there ever have been tracks, they are long since obliterated. It is a long time since any living creature other than an occasional rabbit or wallaby trespassed upon its arid breast.”[2] This quotation exposes the real age of the Australian landscape, one that has its own history and its own native people, despite the white settlers’ original view that the country was uninhabited. The fact that there are no tracks shows that the land is untamed, not ordered or mapped like England’s streets and footpaths; England is a place of order, routine and class systems unlike Australia which was for a long time untouched by British rules and regulations. However, in a later description of the Rock during a scene where the headmistress, Mrs Appleyard, climbs up near the top, it is clear that what Lindsay was trying to explore was not the danger of the environment, but the arrogance of the British and how they will never fully belong in the Australian bush: “After a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy, flat-footed woman trod the springing earth […] she knew no more of Nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn.”[3]

In addition to images of the Australian bush and landscape, English buildings and scenery also play an important part within the novel and, like the Rock, are almost characters unto themselves. The first paragraph of the novel describes the external view of the College with “cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive. Heavy-headed dahlias flamed and drooped in the immaculate flowerbeds, the well-trimmed lawns steamed under the mounting sun”.[4] This image contrasts sharply with the details of the Hanging Rock and even though the College gardens may be beautiful, they are completely misplaced in the Australian Bush. Lindsay later describes the College as “an architectural anachronism in the Australian bush – a hopeless misfit in time and place”.[5] In another scene, the students are faced with a terrifying group hallucination of the Rock within the middle of the gymnasium:

The dreadful shape is a living monster lumbering towards them across the plain, scattering rocks and boulders. So near now, they can see the cracks and hollows where the lost girls lie rotting in a filthy cave […] The light voice of authority goes unheard as the smouldering passion long banked down under the weight of grey disciplines and secret fears burst into flames.[6]

er

The famous Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Rock,_Victoria

The Rock and its symbolic defence of pre-colonised times has figuratively and literally broken down the English walls of the college. Exposing such a frightening image to young women not only transcends the barriers between the two cultures but also destroys the children’s innocence and naivety, symbolic of how many white settlers destroyed the native Aborigine’s homes. Maggie Kilgour argues that “a building or city’s relationship to its natural surroundings is telling of its true nature”[7] and this description depicts a world where both colonised and colonisers cannot coexist. It is also revealed at the end of the novel that “the College itself was totally destroyed by a bushfire during the following summer”[8] challenging the British ideal of its Empire as an indestructible power. Ultimately, after continuous contrasting descriptions throughout the text of English routine and order in comparison to the Australian wilderness, it is the latter that is still the same when the novel comes to a close. The destruction of the College which is the epitome of all ‘Englishness’ is representative of the colonised subject resisting any form of false representation.

Ultimately, Picnic at Hanging Rock utilises Gothic descriptions of landscape to challenge colonisation. Mrs Appleyard, the personification of English values and beliefs, is driven mad by her obsession with perfection and success and is killed at the Rock, which represents the untouched, wild and natural Australian environment. In one interesting and defining moment, a local resident Doctor Mackenzie says to one student that she should not think about the Rock because “the Rock is a nightmare, and nightmares belong to the past”.[9] Picnic at Hanging Rock exposes how ignorance of the past will ensure it comes back to haunt you.

Notes

[1] Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, “The (Mis) Shapes of Neo-Victorian Gothic: Continuations, Adaptations, Transformations,” Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century, ed. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012) 18.

[2] Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (London: Vintage, 1998) 30.

[3] Lindsay 186.

[4] Lindsay 7.

[5] Lindsay 8.

[6] Lindsay 136.

[7] Maggie Kilgour, The Rise of the Gothic Novel (London and New York: Routledge, 1995) 119.

[8] Lindsay 189.

[9] Lindsay 126.

Sarah McFee has written other posts for this blog on:

ANGELS AND DEVILS IN THE HOUSE: THE EVOLUTION OF WOMEN IN GOTHIC VAMPIRE FICTION – BRAM STOKER’S MINA HARKER

MARK TWAIN’S ‘THOSE EXTRAORDINARY TWINS’: CHALLENGING CONSTRUCTIONS OF ABNORMALITY, CONJOINMENT AND DISABILITY

SINS OF THE FATHER: EMBRACING THE PAST IN NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s