At some point in the twentieth century, the mediocre protagonist so beloved of Walter Scott and his immediate followers took a strange turn. Scott's mediocrities, like the wavering Waverley, are decent sorts whose vices and virtues are supposed to miniaturize an epoch's most significant historical trends. As Lukacs so famously argued in The Historical Novel, "[t]he principal characters in Scott's novels are also typical characters nationally, but in the sense of the decent and average, rather than the eminent and all-embracing" (36). They are knocked about by forces beyond their control, but those forces flow through their bodies instead of against them; when Waverley regretfully settles down at the end of his novel, for example, he finds himself perfectly suited to his comfortably genteel location on an estate. Scott's protagonists may not control the course of history, but they eventually grasp at least the fundamental governing principles of their age and understand how to work them to their own local advantage; more powerful (who, in Lukacs' terms, "grow out of the being of the age" ) or unique figures either direct the course of events or, like Rebecca in Ivanhoe, realize that they are somehow out of historical "place" and wind up displaced altogether.
But at some point, the twentieth and twentieth-century mediocrity began to dramatize not just the way in which our very thoughts are shaped by historical contexts outside our conscious grasp, but instead how the social outsider is battered and shattered by forces he cannot begin to understand or influence. Irony is the dominant note, as the neo-mediocrity, as it were, imagines himself in control (artistic, scientific, political, or otherwise), only for his schemes to collapse into cringe-comedy-type shambles, although sometimes the results are sinister instead of amusing. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the neo-mediocrity is frequently his own unreliable narrator.) Unlike the "decent" Scott mediocrity, the neo-mediocrity is overtly skewed, fanatical, exaggerated, or, at best, comical--often representative of the age's worst habits instead of its redeeming virtues. The neo-mediocrity cannot aspire even to the limited agency afforded to Ivanhoe or Waverley, but is doomed to failure by the social, political, and economic powers wielded by his (or sometimes her, but it's usually his) betters--something he only partially understands, at best. His performance runs the gamut from schlemiel to schlemazel. Rose Tremain's Merivel in Restoration and Merivel: A Man of His Time, Jem Poster's Stannard in Courting Shadows, Anthony Burgess' Kenneth Toomey in Earthly Powers--to take some totally random examples--persistently fail at everything they attempt, take a terribly long time to understand why they fail (if they ever do), and ultimately arrive (or, in Stanndard's case, don't) at some rueful acceptance of their historical irrelevance. Merivel's delighted laughter at his own ridiculous death sums up the neo-mediocrity's relationship to his "time": after a life of things going hilariously wrong, what better than to embrace the sheer ludicrousness of one's not-so-grand exit?
Joshua Jeavons, the obsessive narrator of Matthew Kneale's Sweet Thames (1992), is a case in point. Kneale's novel, an example of neo-Victorian filth-fic* (Clare Clark's The Great Stink is another example), offers up a deconversion narrative liberally salted with critiques of Victorian capitalism and its attendant ideologies, not least the rhetoric of the self-made man. The story inverts narratives about self-improvement and worldly success: Jeavons (himself of mercantile origins) begins as an engineer, a professional man, with an attractive wife, and an unassuming but stereotypically overstuffed household, complete with "tiny stuffed tropical birds" and "busts of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort Albert," neatly protected under glass (28). The birds are stultifying reminders of a larger empire; the busts an equally ridiculous paean to nationhood. But altough Jeavons and his wife Isobella come suitably equipped with all the tchotchkes of Victorian lower-middle-class existence, it soon becomes clear that all is not well: Jeavons suffers from cultural cringe, thanks to his discomfort about his origins; he seems to be a relatively unskilled engineer stuck doing drudgework at his father-in-law's business; and his wife refuses to allow him to consummate their marriage, for a reason that turns out not to be identical to the one in A. S. Byatt's Possession. Moreover, he suffers from an overwhelming obsession with drainage, the passion that drives him for over 3/4 of the book. Jeavons' perfect drainage scheme is a scatological Walter Scott narrative of sorts, intended to yoke a project "called into existence by a committee of a state" to the interests of "the most determined of entrepreneurs" (70)--an attempt to chart a unifying middle ground between collectivist government and individualist capitalists. (As Jeavons is not named Bazalgette, readers will gather that he does not succeed.)
Jeavons' downward spiral from tenuous middle-class to poverty, from ostentatious middle-class comforts to slum resident with "shirt collar frayed, frock coat worn and shapeless" (181), is prompted by the deadly combination of his wife's mysterious disappearance and his ongoing obsession with his impractical drainage scheme. Isobella's vanishing propels the narrative into incompetent detective mode, as Jeavons queries waiters, spies on former acquaintances, and attempts to decode Isobella's notes to herself. The narrative ultimately subverts this project, as eye-witness testimony leads him to a dead end. Meanwhile, obsessively working on his drainage scheme, Jeavons turns into a parody of a medieval scribe, "copying and copying again, until the phrases written became as some epic poem to me" (199). But Jeavons' plans turn out to be mock-religious in their personal significance, invested with a quasi-Christian redemptive quality--a "double salvation for the metropolis" (21)--which does not so much suggest that cleanliness is next to godliness as it does that cleanliness serves as an adequate substitute. A would-be prophet of the drains, living an ascetic life and walking the streets in increasingly tattered clothing, Jeavons regularly strikes other characters as insane (one woman is "somehow alarmed at my face" ); in his yearning to physically purify the city, he is the secular and fanatical version of one evangelist of the poor, the Rev. Rupert Hobbes (who, in fact, turns out to be reasonably helpful when the cholera strikes).
The narrative unwinds Jeavons in a kind of upside-down mode, as Jeavons' collapse is matched by the parodic rise of a different self-made man, the young pickpocket Jem. This decidedly glum carnivalesque, a sort of Book of Job without the God, pitches Jeavons through one humiliation after another, climaxing in his own attack of cholera. Cholera strips Jeavons of his middle-class morality, leaving him mildly admiring of Jem's well-managed "new profession" (244) and his adolescent sexual proficiency. At the same time, it is Jem who rescues him when the local Guardians refuse to allow doctors into the slum, pointing to the moral bankruptcy of the mid-Victorian state and, given the uselessness of his erstwhile backer Sweet, who parrots maxims about the dangers of "charity," the state's putative opposite, the non-Carlylean captains of industry. In other words, Jeavons realizes that he cannot unify opposites when they are not, in fact, opposed at all. Contemplating Sweet's "theory of pauperization," Jeavons realizes that it has become "some kind of holy doctrine: unquestionable, requiring nothing short of tribal obedience, to be upheld regardless of consequence" (261). Jeavons' own "holy doctrine" of clean drains thus itself stands indicted; in the absence of any transcendent religious feeling, other absolutizing narratives sneak in to fill the gap. If the slums hardly seem like a useful solution to Victorian crises, nevertheless Jem's spontaneous (and, even to himself, inexplicable) generosity stands counter to the "fever of belief" (268) from which Jeavons concludes he and everyone else has been suffering. Jeavons' deconversion, then, is not just from his passion for drains, but from his desire for the ability to "banish all dissatisfactions, recasting the world, in the manner of some glistening miracle" (269). It is, that is, a deconversion from utopian fantasy, and a conversion to local acts of goodness--destroying the pump that brings cholera-infected waters to the community, for example. Or saving his wife, who finally manages to liberate herself from her own nightmare--itself yet another example of how Victorian patriarchy runs amok--at the cost of her sanity.
Although Jeavons ends by embracing his position as outcast, running with his wife to Italy and taking a new name--a traditional Victorian ending for those who have hit social dead ends--he also celebrates his new historical self-consciousness, calling on future readers to "[s]eek, instead, that most dazzling of prizes; to see through the delusions of your own time" (311). The reader might well question if this is yet another grandiose project masquerading as a thorough-going skepticism. More to the point, the novel's rejection of utopian "grand" narratives in favor of local intervention is, dare one say it, itself very Victorian--Middlemarch being the most obvious example, except that Jeavons is not Dorothea Brooke (an exceptional woman born at the wrong time). This new project of intellectual self-cleansing thus seems to have defeated itself from the get-go. Nor is it clear that there is any larger point to it, given that Jeavons is in likely permanent exile. Despite his ongoing but fruitless correspondence about the cholera, it's clear that, like the other neo-mediocrities, Jeavons has nowhere to go but the historical dustbin.
*--Although, given the title--an allusion to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land--the filth in question has modernist as well as Victorian roots.