The Profligate Son, by Nicola Phillips

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The Profligate Son: Or, a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency England, by Nicola Phillips, Oxford University Press, RRP£20 / Basic Books, RRP$28.99

In The Profligate Son, Nicola Phillips introduces William Jackson, a teenage libertine. The boy’s father, William Jackson Sr, had earned his fortune in India – serving the East India Company – before returning to London. William, an only child, was born in 1791. He was sent to the best schools, doted on by his family and given a generous allowance.

He proved to be a terrible ingrate. That much we know because of the remarkable source material for Phillips’ book: Jackson Sr’s three-volume work, Filial Ingratitude; Or, The Profligate Son, which was written between 1807 and 1814. These books form, as Phillips tells us, “an account of William’s descent from educated young gentleman to convicted felon between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one”. By the age of 20, he had been in and out of debtors’ prison.

The book opens in 1812, with Jackson on trial for his life at the Old Bailey for the capital crime of forgery. He had exhausted his parents’ patience and their finances: “Mr Jackson ... sent William a “mourning suit” so that he could appear clean and respect­able in the Old Bailey courtroom, and be laid out decently in his coffin should the verdict go against him.”

Phillips’ book widens out to deal with the larger theme of early 19th-century moral panic over profligacy. Pamphlets instructed fathers on how to discipline their sons – and sons on how to resist peer pressure. A profligate son, as Phillips says, “was a stock character in art and literature and a symbol of the failure of respectable parents to instil the virtues of moral, sexual and financial self-control in their sons. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined a profligate as an abandoned, shameless person, lost to virtue and decency.”

In Britain, such anxiety was heightened during the 1790s by the behaviour of George, Prince of Wales, who was famous for his “excessive prodigality and massive debts (of more than £500,000)”.

The young Jackson’s own life ended predictably badly: he escaped hanging but was transported to Australia and sank into alcoholism. In 1828 he “died alone on the street where he lay, a pathetic figure”. Was the wily youth himself at fault? Or England’s budding culture of easy credit?

Phillips is keen for readers to see modern-day parallels: “In today’s consumer-driven society, young people are again particularly vulnerable and becoming more so.” And with an eye on the financial crisis, she wonders whether “profligacy” will reappear in our lexicon – this time referring to “the prodigious spending of parents that will leave a whole generation of children to pay off the resulting debts”.

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