I have been reading aloud from Picnic at Hanging Rock for three hours when my friend touches the window beside her. I do the same; given the blasting air-conditioning, it seems impossible that the glass could be so hot. But it is – we have left behind the breezes of the coast, and the cooling altitude of the mountains. This is the Australian outback, 400 kilometres south-west of Canberra, and it is 44 degrees in the shade. We pull over and step out, and the heat hits us like a wall.
Alongside the heat, it is the sheer emptiness of the country that strikes me; it’s miles since we last passed a car. I recall a line I read earlier in the book:
‘Except for those people over there with the wagonette we might be the only living creatures in the whole world,’ said Edith, airily dismissing the entire animal kingdom at one stroke.
I left Australia on a one-way ticket when I was 21. Somehow, in the intervening decade, I’ve managed to forget quite how languorous this kind of heat makes me. We drive with the windows down, but the heat is soporific. I think of the girls under the rock, ‘overcome by an overpowering lassitude’. My eyes begin to close, and I fumble my way through the next sentences. Despite my discomfort (in truth, because of it), we couldn’t have manufactured better conditions for a reading of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 Australian classic.
On Valentine’s Day, 1900, headmistress Mrs Appleyard arranges for her students to enjoy a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunching on roast chicken and angel cake, and ignoring the fact that all their delicate wristwatches have inexplicably stopped, Miranda, Marion, Irma and Edith set off to climb the Rock in their petticoats and corsets. Hours later, Edith returns alone and in hysterics, and the girls and teachers who remain realize they have lost track of time, and that the maths teacher Greta McGraw has also vanished. They return to the school hours late and in a sta
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