Monday 7 August 2017

Joan Lindsay and that Rock!

In one of those curious book-geek things that I do sometimes, I decided to read two books about Australian author, Joan Lindsay, at the same time.

One was her own 'reminiscence' Time Without Clocks from 1962, the other was the recently published biography, Beyond the Rock by Janelle McCulloch. However, I have been putting off writing about my experiences with these two books for weeks and weeks.

Lindsay wrote Time Without Clocks before Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) was even conceived. She was writing about her marriage, their homes and their many famous, accomplished family and friends before she was famous herself. It was a fascinating reflection of life in Melbourne during the twenties and thirties.

She started off with her 1922 Valentine Day's marriage to Daryl Lindsay in London and their subsequent return to Australia. Where she met Daryl's family for the first time, including his already famous brothers Norman, Percy and Lionel, on their way to their new home in Melbourne.

Lindsay painted a rosy, happy, but poor, 'struggling artist' picture of the early years of their marriage. Money was tight, jobs were scarce and making do was the thing. They mixed in a very social and very creative circle that included Dame Nellie Melba, Arthur Streeton and the McCubbin's. I never felt like Joan was name-dropping or showing off - these were simply the people they knew.

Joan claimed to be able to stop clocks which probably accounts for her fascination with the ambiguities of time. She also had a thing for ghosts and Valentine's Day. She was clearly one of life's odd-bods - charming and eccentric - the kind of person that makes all our lives a little better, a little brighter and a little richer thanks to their creative energies.

She attracted very loyal, very close, life-long friends (including their Mulberry Hill neighbours Keith & Elizabeth Murdoch). Meanwhile her circumspect, respectful interpretation of her marriage to Daryl Lindsay was admirable, though not very believable. Even before I had read a little wider about her life, I struggled to accept her positive, constantly cheerful version of events.

Writing an autobiography is all about telling the story of your own life as you want it to be told. However, what you leave out can reveal as much about you as what you choose to share.

There were moments throughout Time Without Clocks when Joan came across as being rather snobbish and conservative. She often expressed her discontent with modern life, preferring the more gentile time of the Edwardians, yet she also prided herself on breaking with the patterns of a normal life. Like most of us, Joan proved to be a fascinating mixture of contrary self-beliefs.

Joan had her portrait painted a few times, including Archibald prize winner Sir John Longstaff and George Bell. You can view George Bell's portrait of Joan in Sitting room, Mulberry Hill (1927) here.

Lindsay concluded Time Without Clocks in 1952, prior to their sojourn in America, of which she wrote about in Facts, Soft and Hard (1964).

At the Hanging Rock (1875) William Ford - National Gallery of Victoria
Beyond the Rock was an equally curious reading experience.  I was prepared to be caught up in the mystery of the rock, the story and the author, much as I had been wrapped up in the melodrama and suspense of Picnic at Hanging Rock (both the book and the movie). After all, it's the 50th anniversary of its publication. I was also looking to have some of Joan's carefully curated stories from Time Without Clocks fleshed out and expanded.

However despite the lush and beautifully produced presentation, McCulloch's biography failed to capture my imagination. Perhaps the lovely over-sized hardback raised my hopes too high?

Right from the beginning, McCulloch declared her intention to perpetuate the sense of mystery that surrounds the book (and movie), without trying to explain it at all. I appreciated knowing what her biases were, but this lack of objectivity and critical analysis bugged me all the way through. As did, the absence of footnotes. Not only was I not convinced that there was any mystery at all, but McCullough's continued attempts to try and prove so, felt weak and manufactured.

On page xix, she says,
So just what haunts Hanging Rock? And is it geographical, paranormal, or some other force we can't explain? Nobody knows. 
The place is a mystery.

I had been hoping for a more rigorous, in-depth exploration of the story and its author.
When I pick up a biography I expect to gain fresh psychological insight into the chosen subject as well as being utterly saturated in the detailed facts of their life and times. Neither happened.

Instead, there were too many statements that began, 'it was believed' or 'it was felt' or 'they seemed'. The repetition of phrases and ideas occurred too often for my liking. Many long bows were drawn to connect the un-connectable and then stretched to breaking point - my breaking point at least! I did discover some extra details in the 30 pages or so in Beyond the Rock that covered the same time period as Time Without Clocks in what proved to be the most interesting section of the book for me.

The dedication and acknowledgement to 'traditional Aboriginal owners of the land' at the beginning also raised my hopes that McCulloch had uncovered some interesting mythologies or traditional stories about the rock that would somehow connect with Lindsay's tale. But sadly, this idea was not explored further, except for one brief reference to the Wurundjeri tribe who claimed that the top of the rock was 'haunted by evil spirits'.

My favourite parts of the book, were all the photos and pictures of Joan, her paintings, Mulberry Hill and of Hanging Rock itself that were generously reproduced throughout.

I really wanted to be wowed by this book, but at best this light-weight biography was easy entertainment in a pretty package.


  1. Sometimes we want more from a book....than is really there!
    Your comparisons were insightful and showed the pros and cons of book books in your opinion.
    As they say...I don't ready a blog....I read what a blogger thinks!
    Biography with 'grab power' is still K. Lamb's about Thea Astely "Making her Own Weather'.
    Suggestion: I'm reading 'A Woman in Berlin' by Anonymous and it is very good. The author worked a journast/publisher during WWI days in Germany, but only agreed her book be published after her death. Only a few know who she is. She died in 2001. That makes the book all the more mysterious!

    1. ..that should read: WWII

    2. I judge biography by Gitta Sereny. About 20 yrs ago I read her huge tome of a bio on Albert Speer. It was an astounding piece of research and interview technique (he was still alive at the time). Her psychological insights and integrity has made this bio my standard for all future bio's.
      Goodreads reviews here

  2. You have such a great comparison system Brona! I'm not much of a non-fiction reader, but I know how helpful comparisons are when I'm looking to try something different!


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