In the late summer of 2018, RTÉ 2 aired the Australian set period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock. An adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, the six-part series tells the story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in 1900 Australia. This is the second major screen adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, after Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film. The series as a whole is imbued with a sense of mystery and foreboding, exploring themes such as repressed sexuality, female conflict and friendship, physical and psychological abuse, the supernatural, colonialism and identity.
For this article, I will be focusing on the series’ exploration of identity in the context of colonial Australia at the turn of the century. While the drama’s plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of the young women, the series is more widely about the complex relationship between the characters and the society that they inhabit. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, Australia is presented as a place of escape and reinvention for its European characters. On a deeper level, we also get a sense of the uneasy relationship between England and its Australian colonies. In colonial Australia, there is an inherent conflict between the past and future. While individuals may see Australia as a new world that offers the chance of a fresh start, the structures of imperialism that exist in Australia strives to reinforce old European, particularly English, ideals. For every runaway looking to reinvent themselves, there is another member of the old guard looking to mould Australia into some replica of British society. This conflict is at the centre of the series and it is ultimately the struggle between reinvention and tradition that leads to catastrophe for many of the characters.
To explore the themes of identity and colonialism in Picnic at Hanging Rock, we must first look at the woman at its centre: Headmistress Hester Appleyard. The series’ opening titles immediately creates a sense of intrigue around the figure of Hester:
“On Valentine’s Day 1900, four young women vanished from a picnic at Hanging Rock. The infamous events began when a mysterious widow purchased a mansion out in the Australian bush.”
Hester embodies the idea of conflicted identity at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock. An English runaway with a shady past, Hester builds a new life in Australia by disguising herself as a wealthy widow. Hester’s journey illustrates the idea of Australia as a place of reinvention and escape. However, Hester as a character also shows the difficulty and limits of abandoning an old life and identity. Her name sums up her struggle between her past and present self. She retains her first name, Hester, but takes a new surname, Appleyard. In a symbolic twist, she takes her adopted surname from a soap manufacturer, showing her intention to wash herself clean of her past life and crimes. Hester’s two accents further emphasise the idea of her dual identities. In the voice-over that articulates Hester’s internal monologue, she speaks with a pronounced cockney accent, while she speaks with a clipped upper-class English accent in her everyday conversations with characters. While Hester first appears adept at managing her two identities, it becomes clear as the series’ narrative progresses that she can’t maintain this. Hester faces not only the threat of being exposed by individuals and events from her past but also struggles to suppress her memories and natural urges.
Hester is not the only character seeking a new life in Australia. Here late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Australia is depicted as a place where individuals have the opportunity to throw off the restraints and transgressions of their past lives. Hester’s friend, and possible lover, Dr Mackenzie sees Australia as a place of reinvention, where people are no longer bound by the rules of English society. He shows a total disinterest in Hester’s past life and reminds her that they are a “long way from Buckingham Palace.” Hester Appleyard’s school serves as an apparent haven for an assortment of runaways, misfits and undesirables. The staff of Appleyard College is populated by women who are all outsiders in some way. Hester seems to have deliberately hired women with questionable pasts because they are more likely to be grateful and loyal. The French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitiers fled her home country after an illness epidemic killed her entire family. After finding work in Australia as a governess, her young charge also passed away and she struggled to find employment before meeting Hester. A local woman Mrs Valange also found refuge as the school’s Art and Literature teacher after being abandoned by her husband. Dora Lumley, the school’s Mistress of Deportment and Bible Studies, is a fragile and volatile woman who is heavily implied to have suffered from psychological and physical, and possibly sexual, abuse at the hands of her father and brother.
It is the Geography and Mathematics teacher Greta McCraw who probably best represents not only the promise of freedom that Australia seems to offer its immigrants but also shows how deceptive and ultimately hollow this hope is. A closeted lesbian, Greta has left her home in Scotland in an attempt to find a life of sexual and emotional liberation. However, even in the Australian wilderness, she is forced to conceal her sexuality for fear of prejudice and losing her job. While she can carry out a secret relationship with her pupil Marion, it is clear that she will always have to hide her true identity from her co-workers and other students. This sense of unfulfilled hope is summed up in a conversation with Marion where she explains: “I thought it would be far enough. I thought it would be a new world.”
Hester is shown to have a complicated relationship with her English identity. Despite fleeing her life in England, Hester still strives to uphold the ideals and traditions of the British upper classes. Appleyard College appears to act as an oasis of Britishness in the Australian wilderness, a place where young women are moulded into ideal examples of refined English ladies. Hester repeatedly expresses a keen sense of patriotism, proclaiming that England owns the world and dismissively referring to Australia as ‘the colony’. However, Hester’s pride in her home country seems misplaced when we learn about her past. Orphaned at a young age, Hester spent her early years in an orphanage before being adopted by a criminal named Arthur. As a child, she was exploited by her surrogate father who made her earn money by performing for aristocratic men. It is also strongly suggested that she was coerced into working as a prostitute. Given the poverty and degradation of her early life in England, it is difficult to fathom where Hester’s patriotism and faith in the British Empire come from. Learning about Hester’s past also further complicates our view of her interactions with a member of the upper classes in Australia. In her disguise as the refined Mrs Appleyard, Hester is still in a sense performing for the English aristocracy. During a fever dream in Episode One, Hester imagines herself reciting a poem in front of members of the local elite as she is stripped of her clothes.
It is perhaps because of Hester’s position as an outsider that she is particularly aware of the fragility of an individuals place in society. In her mind the school is a fortress against the Australian wilderness, holding together an idealised version of English society. In protecting her school, Hester is protecting her new identity as the school’s reputation and her own are interconnected. She articulates this is a conversation with Dr Mackenzie:
“Do you know, I laughed the first time I saw this house. A wall. Like a parasol in a blizzard. How can a wall protect us from what’s out there? But it does. It does, fortified by standards and values. One brick holds up the next, so it is with the edicts of society. If you and I were to do as we both would want, the spell would break and it would all fall down.”
In Episode One, the students and teachers of Appleyard College attend a party at the governor’s house. The fete is in honour of local boys who are showing their locality to “queen and country” by signing up to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. The fete is an opportunity for the local gentry to put on an elaborate display of their patriotism and civility. The willingness of Australian boys to fight in a British war is celebrated as a show of locality to the Empire and the queen at its head. However, Marion views the celebrations in a more cynical light, questioning the willingness of the boys to engage in a war with a people and a country that they probably know little about: “Could you do it? Sail off and kill someone you’ve never even met.” Given her aboriginal heritage, it makes sense that Marion would have a pessimistic view of the British Empires ‘civilising’ effect on the world.
In the series, we frequently see how the opportunities of reinvention offered by Australia are often blocked by members of the local elite. While many immigrants embrace the opportunity for reinvention and self-determination offered by Australia, local aristocrats and rulers resist this. Even though they are apparently in a new world, they still hold onto their obsession with class structure and an individual’s background and family name. During the fete, Hester is questioned about her family and her place of birth. The snobbery and prejudice of the English elite are shown in how a group of women label Marion as the “dark one” and refer to her as “Justice Quaid’s bastard”. Marion is an intelligent young woman, being educated among girls from respected family’s, but her status as a mixed-race illegitimate child means that she will never be accepted or respected by this society. Even Irma, who appears to be an ideal example of an English lady, is disparaged for her Jewish identity.
Ideas of English domination over Australia are often challenged by members of the local community. While the upper-class members of society remain staunchly loyal to the ideals of the British Empire, it is clear that there is a burgeoning Australian identity among the descendants of white settlers. While the gentry simply wants to transplant their view of society to a new climate, these settlers have assimilated over generations and have formed their own Australian identity. One character that embodies this is the local police sergeant. Sergeant Bumpher is shown distrust members of the local elite and frequently clashes with Mrs Appleyard over outside interference in the search for the girls. The sergeant takes a cynical view of Europeans coming to Australia, pointing to what he sees as an epidemic of forged references in Australia.
Despite their seeming control, it is apparent that British domination of Australia is built on a shaky foundation. While Australia appears to be a place of opportunity for Europeans, it is also a place that can easily destroy them. In the opening of the series, we learn that the previous owner of the mansion purchased by Hester died while looking for gold in New Zealand. It is clear that while Australia and New Zealand are often seen as playgrounds for rich Europeans, they often fail to understand the dangers that can lie there. The Hanging Rock itself embodies this idea. While local aboriginals are wary of the rock and are knowledgeable about the danger that it poses, the school views in as the ideal place for a Valentine’s Day picnic. This is shown to be a catastrophic mistake when Miranda, Marion, Irma and Miss McCraw vanish.
In Picnic at Hanging Rock, we see 1900 Australia as a place caught between the ideas of tradition and reinvention. While Australia offers the opportunity for escape and transformation, it is also a society bound to the ideals and expectations of an old ruling elite. In the series, Australia’s relationship with Britain is shown to be deeply damaging and detrimental to its development as a nation. However, not every character is disillusioned with the opportunities offered by Australia. Michael Fitzhubert, a young English aristocrat struggling with his sexuality and the expectations of his family name, still embraces Australia as a place of freedom and rebirth:
“Back home, one’s future is set. One is baptised with the family crest above one’s head. It’s on the family crypt as of one could be baptised and buried in the same day. But it’s not like that out here. This place is timeless. The past might be written in stone, but we’re not. We can be anything.”
In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the British Empire is associated with repression and decay. The setting of the story in 1900 is particularly significant as it marks the start of a century where Britain would see its control and influence over a large portion of the world dwindle. Hester Appleyard’s school ultimately failed because it owed too much to a dying world. While the school was meant to be a place of education and development, its blind adherence to some dying ideal of Britishness made success and prosperity impossible.
Credit for cover image to rte.ie.
Other photos to rte.ie, stuff.co.uk.