William, who before he reached the age of maturity had become one of these, did not have the look of a criminal: “He had a well-cut head of dark brown hair and hazel eyes and, from a very young age, had learned the value of adorning his slim frame with elegant clothing.” During his brief stay at Harrow, though, he was exposed to the “privilege of wealth and class [that] conveyed an equivocal sense of morality,” and he learned “a good deal about young gentlemen’s attitudes toward their peers, the lower orders, and schoolmasters” as well as “a sense of legitimate grievances and of resistance to whatever he viewed as unjust authority, both of which would spring forth frequently throughout his life.” Today we would say that he felt himself entitled, and we would be right.
He was as incorrigible as he was self-indulgent. By the time he was 14 or 15 years old, the pattern of indulgence compounded by deceit had established itself for good. No matter how unpleasant the consequences of his behavior may have been, he never learned a single thing from them. Throughout, his “loose behavior was disturbingly similar to that of the famously indebted aesthete and voluptuary the Prince of Wales,” but no throne awaited young William. Small wonder that his father worried as the debts piled up:
“Middle-class families, for whom financial security and social reputation were closely linked, commonly feared their sons would be seduced into emulating their superiors’ spending habits and sexual mores, resulting in ruinous expense and a risk to the health of both the rising and future generations. Whereas prospective heirs to landed estates could use titles and wide acreages to protect themselves from the claims of creditors, the majority of middle-ranking families relied on the inculcation of virtuous habits to avoid the threat of imprisonment for debt.”
Prison was precisely what awaited William after, having descended to the very depths, he forged a check to a London bookseller. Forgery was a capital crime. He was sent to Newgate, an infamous prison, and put on trial. Clever lawyers managed to get him off, but he wasn’t finished. In 1813 he and a friend “acquired two gold watches and a diamond ring” from a goldsmith in Cheltenham, claiming that a prominent local doctor would pay for them. The claim was false. They were arrested, tried and convicted. The sentence was transportation as criminals to Australia, then commonly known as New South Wales. His friend accepted the punishment, but William, truculent and resentful as ever, convinced of his own rectitude and the injustice of his elders, remained embittered after arriving in Australia and soon enough resumed his lawless ways. In March 1828, in “the final stages of alcoholism,” he “died alone on the street [in Sydney] where he lay, a pathetic figure with no friends or family to comfort him or to mourn his passing.”
His father had died 14 years earlier, “just weeks after his son began life as a propertyless convict servant.” He was only 53, “but the mental and emotional stress of the previous five years had undoubtedly contributed to the paralysis that slowly immobilized his limbs and finally stilled his heart.”
Though it would be a mistake to draw cosmic morals from the tale of this father and son, Phillips is right to point out that “today the purchase of goods on credit is more common than purchase with cash” and that the aggressive marketing of credit cards is an invitation to irresponsible behavior, especially by those whose appetites are bigger than their bank accounts. Beyond that, the passage of two centuries has not wholly ameliorated the misunderstandings and failures of communication that too often arise between fathers and sons. “The Profligate Son” can and should be read as a cautionary tale, albeit one told with style, flair and solid history.