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The Profligate SonIf this were a novel by Dickens or Thackeray, you may well nod approvingly at exaggeration for effect. But this book is a morality tale which is all true.

The principals are the upright William Jackson Senior and his wastrel son, William Jackson Junior. Other leading characters include the boy’s long-suffering, loving mother, and other intimates who mainly comprise fond uncles, in-laws, servants and sundry accomplices. The whole story runs to the late 1820s but he main action takes place from 1807 and 1814.

Jackson père had made a modest fortune as so many before and after him as an employee of the East India Company, in his case as a Collector in the Madras presidency. He blotted his copybook somewhat through the mishandling of an incident involving a recalcitrant local prince. It took him years back in London to restore his reputation.

Choosing not to return to India, Jackson instead opted to go into semi-retirement as a pillar of the London middle-class and country squire, putting all his hopes in the assumed future achievements of young William, his only surviving child. He deemed the Law was the best option for the young chap.

Unfortunately, young William had other ideas turning out to be the epitome of the dissolute, Regency wastrel, a Beau Brummel in miniature. He had vague ideas of soldiering, a romantic enough notion given the period. Sent away to be educated in the classics, he was from the start completely out-of-control. By his mid-teens he had been expelled from several schools, fought a duel, contracted venereal disease and swindled dozens of shopkeepers, landlords and sundry suppliers around town.

Dressed to the nines and with a handsome prostitute on his arm, page after jaw-dropping page, William descends further and relentlessly into criminality. Nobody – parents, teachers, the military, the courts – can curb his excesses. Everyone loves a naughty anti-hero, but William is shocking.

In total contrast, his father is a dull, upright, moralistic fellow, but one cannot help feeling for the man.

The primary source for this entertaining book is Jackson Senior’s detailed but unpublished account of his son’s every action and his own response to it. Filial Ingratitude was written in three volumes and in addition to its author’s account included meticulously copied correspondence between the main parties and much commentary, margin notes and so on. To him, reputation counted for everything; it seems he felt that getting everything down on paper protected him somehow.

Nicola Philips takes the Jackson story and places it in the broader environment they inhabit, making us familiar not just with London’s streets but  with the city’s major London criminal justice institutions. Bow Street, Marlborough Street, and Old Bailey. The prisons of Newgate, the Fleet and Clerkenwell. The hulks at Woolwich, and indeed lock-ups and courts further afield, but at the risk of spoilers, I shall leave it at that.

Our period is during the Napoleonic Wars when specie was in very short supply. Much of the economy ran on bills of exchange, promissory notes etc. The system relied totally on men’s reputation and their word, otherwise the whole economy would come crashing down. And no formal police force! This created a perfect hunting ground for gentlemen swindlers and fraudsters of young William Jackson’s ilk.

It is extraordinary too,  just how sophisticated, intricate and extensive were social and business networks during the period. The reader – no less than Jackson senior – is left astounded at which hapless members of his family’s network the young Jackson was prepared callously to exploit, using all the low cunning of the amoral desperado. He was always one step ahead of his astonished and fuming parent, but in the end within the grasp of certain creditors – and the law.

Ultimately the father, and then the obedient mother, withdraws protection and all support, leaving the profligate son completely exposed. The story by no means ends there but you’ll have to buy the book to find out.

Even though we only really get the father’s side of the story, and taken that the louche Regency dandy fraudster was a far from uncommon type during our period, I found it very difficult to sympathise with William Jackson the younger. Except maybe a tiny bit at the end.

A true Regency tale, with dollops of absorbing social, legal and criminal history thrown in, beautifully told.

Warmly recommended.

The Profligate Son (332 pp) by Nicola Phillips is published by OUP on 24 October with a cover price of £20.00, although available for less.

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