Joan Lindsay, Author of Picnic at Hanging Rock

Joan Lindsay

Joan Lindsay (November 16, 1896 – December 23, 1984) was an Australian author, essayist, and visual artist, best known for her mystic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.

She began her literary career at forty years old when Through Darkest Pondelayo (1936) was published. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1966) was published when she was seventy-one.


Early Life

She was born Joan à Beckett Weigall in East St Kilda in Victoria to an upper-class Edwardian family. Her father Sir Theyre à Beckett Weigall was a judge and her mother Annie Sophie Henrietta was the daughter of Sir Robert Hamilton, the governor of Tasmania.

She attended Clyde Girls Grammar School, a private girls’ school, which she used as inspiration for the Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Joan describes herself as having an “extraordinary memory of her youth” and recounts her first word, “beautiful,” as she stood in a garden of pansies at only three years old. Her “gloriously eccentric” childhood was filled with fascinating visitors to her home like the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer, literary scholar Sir Archibald Strong, and her cousins Panleigh and Merric Boyd who both went on to be celebrated artists.

Joan studied painting at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. While she continued to paint throughout her life, she never pursued it professionally. In part, this decision was made because she felt she could not express herself well enough through painting. This realization sparked her decision to become a writer – a medium in which she could better express herself.

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Joan Lindsay in 1914

Joan in 1914
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 From a young age, Joan knew she wanted to marry into the Lindsay family. Irish-born Dr. Robert Lindsay and his wife Jane had ten children. Five of those ten brought the family to prominence because of their careers in art and literature.

Joan got her wish when she eloped with Daryl Lindsay in London on St. Valentine’s Day 1922. Their marriage made waves . Those in her milieu could not understand why she would marry such a bohemian, but Joan was not phazed. She likened herself more to the Bloomsbury Group than her establishment family.


Eccentric Beliefs

St. Valentine’s Day was special to Joan. In addition to it being her anniversary, it’s the same day that she set the events in her novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“Daryl and I were married in London on St Valentine’s Day nineteen hundred and twenty-two – the only date I have ever remembered, except 1066 and Waterloo,” said Joan. She even had an extensive collection of intricately handmade Valentine’s Day cards.

Joan had an unconventional, free-spirited, attitude toward time, often disregarding it completely. Time was often a theme she played with in her writing. In a 1973 interview, she said, “I have an extraordinary gift, you might call it a very sinister one of stopping people’s watches just by sitting beside them.” She elaborated on her relationship with time:

“I’ve been terribly interested in time, always; I always felt that it was something that was all around one. Not just in a long line in a calendar. I feel that one’s in the middle of time and that the past, present, and future is all around and I’m in the middle of it.”

Joan balanced her eccentricities with the demeanor of a high-society woman of the early 1900s. In interviews, she can be seen wearing pearls, and had a polite and measured way of speaking. Yet at the same time, she had an air of mystery and youthfulness.

Janelle McCullough, author of Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay said in an ABC radio interview, “She was enigmatic, she loved a mystery, she was herself a mystery … she was a mystic. She was able to see things we can’t.”

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Joan and Daryl Lindsay

Joan and Daryl Lindsay
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Through Darkest Pondelayo and Other Novels

Her first novel, Through Darkest Pondelayo (1936), tells the story of two women on a fantastic adventure to the eponymous fictional cannibal island. Written in the style of journal entries or letters back home, the novel was published under a pseudonym, adding to the immersive experience.

The satirical novel featured photographs of the characters in comical situations and intentional errors in the writing to give the feeling of a real travelogue. A review of the novel wrote that the publishers “entered fully into the spirit of the thing, presenting the book on exaggeratedly thick paper in the true manner of offering a book of tremendous importance.”

There were no other novels until Time Without Clocks (1962) and Facts Soft and Hard (1964), but in these intervening years Joan was a prolific essayist and contributor to journals.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967 novel)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967)

Picnic at Hanging Rock was her biggest success and became a cult classic. In the year 1900, students at Appleyard College set out on a Valentine’s Day picnic at the geologic wonder, Hanging Rock.

The book is an ode to femininity, with men only featured as secondary characters, as well as to the natural world. The mood shifts after the disappearance of three of the girls who wandered further up the rock.

The novel follows the aftermath and ripple effect of this event on the school, the other students, and the rural town that neighbors the school. The book was met with much praise but also some confusion, as Joan offers no satisfying ending to her mystery, but instead invites readers to indulge in mystery itself.

In 1975 Peter Weir directed the iconic, stunning film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Before publishing Hanging Rock, Joan removed the final chapter of the book on an editor’s suggestion. This chapter displays her fascination with space and time as she explains the girls’ disappearance through a supernatural hole in time. This chapter was published posthumously as The Secret of Hanging Rock (1987).


Later Life

Joan continued writing and living in her beloved Victoria home, Mulberry Hill. Syd Sixpence (1982), a children’s book  published when she was  eighty-six, was her last full-length work.

After she died of stomach cancer in 1984, her home was gifted to the National Trust. Today, people can visit, as well as  take the writing workshops at the house that inspired Time Without Clocks.

“In the studio at Mulberry Hill we discovered that cut flowers have an astonishing range of movement, turning their heads, slipping in and out of water, drooping, straightening, flinging themselves clean out of the container.  Buds open and shut while you wait, or drop off, leaves uncurl.  Certain flowers placed in the same vase with incompatibles will keel over and die, while the gentle lily, well known to painters for its persistence in following the light, can wreck a carefully arranged bunch overnight, unless it is stored in a darkened room.” (—Time Without Clocks, 1962)

More about Joan Lindsay

Major works by Joan Lindsay

  • Through Darkest Pondelayo (1936)
  • Time Without Clocks (1962)
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967)
  • Syd Sixpence (1982)
  • The Secret of Hanging Rock (1987)

Further reading

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