The embrace of ambiguity in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

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Since it was published over fifty years ago, Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) has captivated critics and readers alike. Peter Weir's influential 1975 cinematic adaptation brought the tale to an even wider audience, both national and international. The success of the film, however, has been double edged for while it brought fame to the story it has overshadowed the book, such that the novel and film tend to be spoken of in tandem or synonymously.1 Fifty years on, it is time to reconsider Picnic at Hanging Rock unmoored from its cinematic adaptation, especially in light of Janelle McCulloch's recent book Beyond the Rock (2017). Among McCulloch's many revelations was that Lindsay's literary imagination was significantly influenced by the works of the American novelist, Henry James (1843-1916). McCulloch discloses that “Joan particularly admired his novel The Turn of the Screw which she called 'a mysterious tale that was half-truth and half fiction'” (137). McCulloch does not, however, offer any detail or analysis of how and to what extent Lindsay's regard for James's work, almost written a century earlier, might have influenced her own. Certainly, there are some striking parallels between Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Turn of the Screw, such as the fact that each lacks a satisfying ending.

A closer reading of both texts, however, suggests that the parallels run much deeper. Both narratives challenge us to ponder if there are dark supernatural forces at work, or if the nightmare comes from within. Both are set in remote locations and involve a female disciplinarian caring for children. Both assign male characters secondary roles as servants, policemen, would-be ghosts or lovers. Both Lindsay's Mrs. Appleyard and James’s unnamed governess are single, lonely women who lack a sexual life. Indeed, the question of sexual repression permeates each narrative and is the trigger for much of the anxiety and apprehension. Considering these remarkable similarities, it is surprising that no one has undertaken a comparative study of these novels. Perhaps this is because commentary around Lindsay's novel has been driven by the desire to locate and foster an Australian literary tradition independent of its British and American counterparts, and also by a pervasive need among Australian critics to address and redress specific cultural concerns, such as the omission of indigenous peoples in our storytelling. While these critical approaches are undeniably valid and valuable, they overlook Lindsay's indebtedness to nineteenth century realism and romance, particularly Henry James’s idiosyncratic mixture of these conventions. The following comparative analysis of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Turn of the Screw considers the ways in which Lindsay's work has embraced James’s enigmatic imagination. What will be ultimately suggested is that Picnic at Hanging Rock pushes James's obscurity further by moving the drama beyond the social realm that so characterized her predecessor’s literary worlds.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)8-20
Number of pages13
JournalAntipodes: a global journal of Australian/New Zealand literature
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019


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