T 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.”

It was Phillips’s extreme good fortune to come across a voluminous but unpublished manuscript titled “Filial Ingratitude; or, the Profligate Son,” written between 1807 and 1814 by William Collins Jackson about the descent into criminality of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.”

It was, by the same token, a time when credit was routinely extended to the wealthy by merchants of all kinds. After a boyhood during which his father was almost entirely absent, William Jackson received his education in the realities of the day at a succession of schools in which the lessons he most dutifully learned were those taught by peer pressure: the expectation that young-blade sons of wealthy men would be dressed to the nines, wine and dine in the finest places, consort with whores or maintain mistresses — all of this on credit given by merchants who were confident that sooner or later Daddy would pony up.

‘The Profligate Son: Or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain’ by Nicola Phillips (Basic)

The practice was so common that little opprobrium was attached to it, and indeed “fashionable society frequently regarded the indebted dandy or regency buck with pity, expecting no more than an honorable withdrawal to France when creditors closed it.” The most celebrated such youth was Beau Brummell, who escaped his creditors by fleeing across the Channel: “On hearing of Brummell’s fate in 1816, the Duke of Devonshire, at whose magnificent estate William had once partied, observed, ‘Poor man. . . . We tolerate great swindlers in society.’ ”

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.


Or, a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin
in Regency Britain

By Nicola Phillips

Basic. 332 pp. $28.99