'The pattern [which] had begun to form...was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete ... Unaware of their allotted places in the general scheme of joy and sorrow, light and shade [they] went about their personal affairs as usual, unconsciously weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole' (Picnic at Hanging Rock).
In 1956 Joan Lindsay gave a talk at the Lyceum Club in Melbourne entitled 'Repeat Pattern'. This talk is now completely forgotten, yet it is significant in the development of her thought. In her talk she explained the concept of 'repeat pattern' as follows: 'I believe that the pattern of every human life is like any other pattern, containing at ever recurring intervals what the designer of textiles calls a REPEAT. When the Repeat occurs the design resolves itself and begins all over again, thus fulfilling the original rhythm with which it began. Inch by inch, yard by yard, the pattern of the woven material takes shape. Hour by hour, day by day, the intricate and less easily recognizable tapestry of human life is worked out. The repeat is often at long intervals, often disguised in the complexity of the whole, but it is always there.'
This is almost certainly the first time that Joan Lindsay set down her philosophy on the relationship between human life and time - something she would develop initially in her book of autobiographical reminiscences Time Without Clocks, but especially in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Since the publication in 1967 of the novel, and especially since the release of the film in 1975, the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher, Miss McCraw, on Hanging Rock on St Valentine's Day 1900 has become a puzzle which many people have tried to solve - there have even been two books published on the subject. Hitherto those trying to solve the puzzle have concentrated mainly on events in the book or film. In this talk I approach the mystery from a different perspective, by looking at a few relevant events in Joan Lindsay's life up to 1956, and also by examining some things of importance to her. What I have chosen are pieces of a 'repeat pattern', which I believe will provide an insight not only into Joan's thinking, but also throw some light on what happened at Hanging Rock on that fateful day in 1900.
Yet I believe that the novel also has a (hitherto unnoticed) allegorical level, which can be accessed through a knowledge of events in Joan Lindsay's life in the years between the two world wars. During those years she experienced great suffering and sorrow, consisting of the loss of most members of her immediate family and the end of her career as an artist. Her response was a gradual development of an almost mystical view of life, the seeds of which had been planted at quite an early age. This mystical view is expressed in Picnic at Hanging Rock through the character of Miranda, in particular. Through her, Joan Lindsay is in a sense present at Hanging Rock, present with the picnic party. She later commented: 'To me it all happened, it was all terribly real for me'. Writing the book and thereby being present at the Rock was for her a 'repeat pattern', a re-experiencing of events which had caused her profound grief three decades earlier (Author's abstract).
The pieces of the 'repeat pattern' which are examined in some detail are:
(a) The role of St Valentine's Day in Joan Lindsay's life
(b) Her friendship with her cousin Martin Boyd (q.v.).
(c) Two strange encounters with nuns which left a lasting impression on her.
(d) A mystery ship or two.
(e) People in an alien landscape, and two paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria.
(f) An article by a Miss McCraw, a teacher at Clyde School, in The Cluthan, the Clyde School magazine.
(g) clocks and watches that stop.
Putting these pieces of the pattern together provides an important clue as to what happened at Hanging Rock - at least on the literal level.