Nina in Utopia
Part 1 of the Bedlam Trilogy
Published by Peter Owen, 2011
A breathtakingly original novel of time travel, Bedlam, and a mad Victorian painter London, 1854: Nina, the wife of an ambitious doctor, is heavily traumatized by the death of her young daughter and finds herself mysteriously transported 150 years into the future. A tourist in the 21st century, she believes she is witnessing a Utopia, with the grime and evil of Victorian London expunged, and while in the future, she embarks upon a brief affair. Returning to her own time, her husband takes fright hearing her experiences and has her committed to Bedlam, where she meets Richard Dadd and finds another Utopia under the charge of a doctor with 21st-century ideas on patient rehabilitation. Meanwhile, her husband is on a collision course with her lover who is traveling to find her from another time, in this mesmerizing blend of time travel, Victoriana, and romance.
Maddened with grief over the death of her young daughter, Victorian housewife Nina steps through a temporal wormhole and turns up in 21st-century London, where the streets are cleaner and the carriages horseless. Miranda Miller effectively conveys the unexpected wonder of Waitrose (“I can see how with the march of progress even an onion can evolve into a spherical masterpiece”), but the story becomes more engrossing when Nina slips back into her own time and is promptly committed to Bedlam – an institution undergoing radical change under the enlightened Dr Hood, who has abolished bars and restraints, although he “still performs cliterodectomies on women who persistently indulge in manualisation.” The delight of Miller’s narrative is in determining whether the heroine really is mad. If so, it’s infectious, as the lonely architect who rescues her in the present day is left to wonder if he too experienced a brain fever, or whether the slightly rank early Victorian corset abandoned in his living room is for real.
Dadd is also an absent presence at the heart of Miller’s novel, Nina in Utopia, although his appearance is delayed until the halfway mark. Even then he is filtered through the accounts of others. Nina is a Victorian wife and mother, forced into the role of being the Angel of the House, a couple of years after the Great Exhibition, a few years before the opening of Metropolitan Line. Grieving for her dead daughter, Nina Sanderson awakes in London in 2006, in time to see the Sultan’s Elephant, a carnival-work of performance art staged in London by the Royal de Luxe theatre company. In her confusion, she runs into a divorced architect, Jonathan, spending three days in this strange, new utopia. Time travel as trauma is nothing new, and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Kindred (1979) do it with more urgency and purpose. I also found that I didn’t go along with all of the reactions to nova. Would she spell “car” that way? Does she not know those swear words?
I also began to get the twitchiness I feel with Charolotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1982), great story that it it is: men warn a woman not to do something for the sake of her mental health, she does it and … clearly something is wrong with her. It’s a self-Fulfilling prophecy. Nina’s husband is a young doctor, in an era of new techniques and it is clear that it is a male construction of female consciousness which is to blame; Nina cannot cope with the position she has been placed in. Sometimes is a reasonable response to go mad. Except, as we have been given Jonathan’s point of view, we know she has indeed travelled in time. What the book gains in establishing a female agency, it loses anaesthetic pleasure with its refusal of Todorovian structure of hesitation. Nina’s sister Henrietta, also narrates a series of chapters, and her mental state is hardly better: a prude, she is clearly repressing things. For that matter, Charles may have privilege but he is also the victim of sexual oppression, and suffers from sexual repression – It is telling that his own account shifts from invoking “t-ts” in an earlier chapter to “tits” in a later one – and Nina’s doctor, Charles Hood, also has his own personal crises and a wife whose mental health he undermines. We get the sanity our authority figures construct, to paraphrase Foucault. Lest we dismiss these actions as merely the result of Victorian repression, Jonathan has his own hang-ups, his own alienations from family, wife, children and so forth, and is haunted as Dadd, if not more so. And we, like Jonathan, know that 2006 is not utopia that Nina believes it is.
For all the sense that these are (at least) half a dozen case studies in search of a diagnosis, the book was an intriguing read, and for most of its length the book wears its research lightly. It avoids the excesses of “As you know, Bob,” dialogue, although I suspect the choice of architect as job for Jonathan is there to facilitate an explanation of changes and continuities in London’s cityscape, especially the current status of James Lewis’s building in Southwark. Miller has clearly done her research, but we do not have to suffer it as I’ve found in some other historical novels. Dadd, whose (genuine?) madness is quite different from that of the other characters’, is a little sidelined, mainly remarked upon by other characters, although Miller’s Dadd seems a little more voluble than Troman’s version. I had assumed that Miller’s appropriation of Dadd would take the narrative in quite a different direction – what with all the fairies in his paintings – but I suspect it is much the better novel for avoiding that route. It will be interesting to see where an announced sequel, Richard Dadd’s Visions, chooses to go.