Monday, June 26, 2017

Profligate Son

The Profligate Son of, a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency England- Nicola Phillips
Oxford University Press
Release Date: June 26, 2014

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: In Regency England a profligate son was regarded as every parent's worst nightmare: he symbolized the dangerous temptations of a new consumer society and the failure of parents to instil moral, sexual, and financial self-control in their sons. This book tells the dramatic and moving story of one of those 'profligate sons': William Jackson, a charming teenage boy, whose embattled relationship with his father and frustrated attempts to keep up with his wealthy friends, resulted in personal and family tragedy.


During the late eighteenth- early nineteenth century English society began to change from what we today call Georgian society to Regency society.  It was a time of change in many ways: economic, social, sexual, and cultural- and this change often came in the form of a cultural gap between parents and children.  Fortunately, many people kept excellent diaries, journals, as well as all their letters, allowing us today to dig into the emotional turmoil these changing times could produce.  The Profligate Son is a perfect example, allowing readers to follow one father and son during this fascinating time period.

William Jackson came of age in the early 1800s.  His father was an East India Company man who returned to England wealthy and determined to start a respectable and respected family and raise his son a 'gentleman'.  However, Mr Jackson's idea of a 'gentleman' and William's were quite different- both products of their time.  Where Mr. Jackson expected his son to be obedient, quiet, intelligent, and help establish the credit of the family name through prudent financial management, William was determined to be everything a young Regency buck could be.  He gambled, drank, visited prostitutes, and bought endless amounts of clothes, horses, and accessories.  William's view of a gentleman was very much the entitled view held by the aristocracy he tried to emulate. He never quite seemed to understand the idea of debt- young aristocrats lived on their expectations and he went through life assuming (despite being told otherwise) his father would pay for everything while he was under age, then conveniently die so William could inherit a fortune and pay all his creditors.

William quickly learned to play the system, using his appearance as a gentleman and his father's name to get what he wanted.  During what author Phillips calls "the first age of mass consumer credit" society and the legal system were still working out the problem of different ideas towards debt and credit.  As tradesmen banged on the door William went from simple debt to forgery in order to try and continue the lifestyle he wanted to maintain.  Horrified by William's attitude and lack of care for the family name, Mr. Jackson did all he could to set his son straight.  This eventually meant letting William have a taste of debtor's prison and standing trial for forgery.  

The Profligate Son is a fascinating book, well researched and well written, using one family's well documented story as a microcosm to explore the nature of social and economic change during the time period.  Phillips does an excellent job of explaining to a modern audience the 1800 British justice system and the rather fuzzy and changeable lines between crimes and classes.  She immerses the reader into a world of riches and vice, debtors prison and prison ships, as well as the criminal justice systems of England and Australia.  While William is a thoroughly unlikeable and unsympathetic young man (even when you don't agree with how Mr. Jackson handles things, you completely sympathize with his problems) I couldn't wait to find out what happened to him next.  

Even though I knew going in what the end would be (the dust jacket tells you right from the start William's Australia bound) the book was as full of surprises and drama as if it was fiction instead of well documented fact.  An excellent book for those interested in learning more about Regency England.

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