- The Profligate Son: Or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain by Nicola Phillips
The narrative of “the rake’s progress” was all too familiar to Georgian Britons. Today, we would probably think of William Hogarth’s famous series of eight images, which depict Tom Rakewell’s “progress” from newfound wealth to poverty and insanity, via sexual immorality, social pretension, drink, gaming, debt, and criminality. At the time, this was a stock cautionary tale, which was reiterated in sermons, novels, and advice literature. It was the product of a society where social standing was, for the first time, up for grabs to those who could present themselves in a certain way and negotiate the complex rules of polite society—but where, at the same time, reputation was fragile and fortunes could quickly be dashed. The rake’s progress therefore functioned as a warning, steering Georgians away from vice and keeping them on the straight path to the good life. [End Page 859]
If ever there was a real-life embodiment of the rake’s progress, it would appear to be William Jackson. He is the subject of Nicola Phillips’s superb new book, which takes the form of a biography but also uses the life of Jackson—and also those around him—to explore various aspects of late-Georgian social, criminal, imperial, and sexual history. William was the son of a colonial administrator who had worked for the East India Company in Madras. His family were therefore new money, and his father combined the stern morality of the middle classes with a burning ambition to become accepted by the establishment. (As Phillips points out, Jackson senior’s high opinion of himself is ironically in stark contrast to his reputation in Indian historiography, where he is demonized as “an archetypical arrogant British official” ). As is often the way with the newly wealthy, his plans for respectability focused on his son. William, however, was unpromising material for such a scheme, and The Profligate Son tells the story of the terrible consequences that it would have for father and son alike.
Without wishing to spoil Phillips’s story, it is useful briefly to relate Jackson’s life story, as he was not a well-known figure. William Collins Burke Jackson was born in India in 1791. He was a slight boy with a weak constitution, which would be severely tested by some of the predicaments in which he was to find himself. On the family’s return to England, his father set about trying to place William in a school, with a view to easing his entry into elite society but also where he would receive instruction in suitable moral discipline. Brief spells followed at a succession of establishments, where he rebelled against his tutors, acquired enemies and unsuitable friends, and began a lifetime’s habit of running up debts. Where school failed, his father hoped that a commission in the army might succeed, but the outcome was similar: instead of discipline and responsibility, Jackson took full advantage of the army’s opportunities for fashionable high living, and of the further credit that he could acquire on the strength of his uniform. Phillips describes how Jackson’s schooling and military career ironically exposed him to an aristocratic lifestyle and morality that was in direct opposition to the bourgeois values of his father.
Eventually, Jackson’s debts caught up with him and he served spells in debtors’ prisons. Phillips offers a vivid account of life in these quintessentially Georgian institutions, where those with money could buy a higher standard of living: even at his lowest ebb, Jackson refused to relinquish his pretensions to gentility. Of course, his financial situation could always have been solved at a stroke by the intercession of his wealthy father, but Jackson senior was adamant that William was the author of his own misfortune and should learn his lesson. This did...