From Jane Austen’s Wickham through Charles Dicken’s array of extravagant cads to the latest Regency romance, the dissipated wastrel who throws away his family fortune, or at least his good name, is a familiar character to anyone who reads novels written (or set) in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. They drink, whore, gamble, lie, cheat, and steal. Some attempt to marry–or kidnap–heiresses. Some attempt to push the rightful heir out of the family fortune. A desperate few take to the High Toby.* When they fail, as they generally do, some flee to the Continent. Others are shipped off to the colonies, either by weary families or the legal system. A few reform.**
Fictional black sheep are fascinating, but they often left me wondering whether anyone ever really acted that way. According to historian Nicola Phillips, the answer is yes. In The Profligate Son or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, & Financial Ruin in Regency England, she tells the story of a real-life Regency wastrel, tracing his downfall in agonizing detail. His story is as gripping, and more tragic, as that of any of his fictional counterparts.The only thing missing is the highway robbery.
William Jackson, born in 1791 at the height of Georgian excess, was the son of a successful East India Company merchant. He had every advantage that a child of the merchant classes could ask for–and wasted them with an abandon that equalled that of any fictional ne’er-do-well. At the age of fifteen, he revolted against the increasingly spartan boarding schools in which his father placed him and set out on the path that would lead to his transportation to Australia at the age of twenty for forgery. Phillips leads her reader through the seedy world of London brothels, alehouses and debtors prison*** to the cramped hold of a convict transport and the slums of colonial Sydney. Jackson died in Australia at the age of thirty-seven, a penniless alcoholic survived by his mother, a widow, two young children,and his creditors. The effects of his profligacy lived on after his death in a Chancery Court suit over his inheritance that tied up his family’s assets for years–a twist that will be familiar to readers of Bleak House.
The story is fascinating, though it is ultimately hard to feel much sympathy for Jackson, who repeatedly chooses to transgress. Be warned, once you’ve read The Profligate Son, Recency wastrels will never look dashing again.
* Highway robbery on horseback for those of you who don’t hang out in Georgian England.
** Reform is more common in modern novels set in the period than in novels written in the period. Nineteenth century writers liked their sinners to suffer. Even Dickens’ Sidney Carton reforms only on his way to the guillotine: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done….”
***With a side trip to a bookstore, where Jackson and a friend worked a shady scheme for getting erotic books on credit.