he story of the prodigal son is the one that much of the world knows, but in early 19th-century England, the profligate son was the one who got the most attention. That period is known as the Regency, because, for about a decade, beginning in 1811, it was presided over by a regent, George, Prince of Wales, a spoiled and self-indulgent young man whose “excessive prodigality and massive debts (of more than £500,000)” set an example that caused the parents of other privileged young men to cringe. As Nicola Phillips writes in the opening of this terrific book:
“A profligate son was every Georgian father’s nightmare. He was a stock character in art and literature and a symbol of the failure of respectable parents to instill 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. The dire consequences of such behavior were vividly illustrated in William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1733), which depicted the descent into vice, debt, and mental destruction of a young man who had inherited a fortune from his miserly father. Pamphlets containing salacious accounts of the lives of convicted felons, which blamed their fall into criminality on a profligate youth spent on prostitutes, drinking, and sartorial excess, were often sold at public hangings.”
(Basic) - ‘The Profligate Son: Or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain’ by Nicola Phillips
It was Phillips’s extreme good fortune to come across a voluminous but unpublished manuscript titled “Filial Ingratitude; or, the Profligate Son,” written between 1807 and 1814 by William Collins Jackson about the descent into criminality of his only son, William Collins Burke Jackson. The three volumes of this unhappy tale “present a robust defense of Mr. Jackson’s actions as a ‘good’ father to a profligate son,” Phillips writes, an understandable argument at a time when “being seen to be a good father was considered evidence of a virtuous public man.” Inasmuch as the senior Jackson had suffered embarrassment during his service in India for the East India Company, to the extent that he published two memoirs in hopes of clearing his name, it is not surprising that he came to his own defense again when his son turned into a drunkard, a habitué of brothels and a compulsive debtor.
No stories are as simple as those who act them out often believe them to be, and this one is no exception. The father was scarcely as good as he thought he was, and the son was not unrelievedly bad. The father had acquired a small fortune in India, one that enabled him to live the high life upon his return to England with his wife and son, but he knew that his standing among the gentry was tenuous, and he spent far more time trying to secure it than he did being a father to his son. He was distant and judgmental, if not overtly cruel, and “clung desperately to the belief that he had done his duty as a good father” when, at least “from a modern perspective,” it is clear that he “had never tried to understand the frustrations of youth or to openly express his love for his son.” He was a man of his own time, and it was a time when a man “acted in accordance with the moral beliefs of his class.”