- - Wednesday, November 27, 2013

By Nicola Phillips
Basic Books, $28.99, 360 pages


Until recently, Nicola Phillips notes, “profligacy” was not a word much used in modern times, though it was a 19th-century British parent’s worst nightmare. Now, with the recent financial crisis, the ease of obtaining credit and peer pressure to purchase goods that might otherwise be unaffordable, “profligacy” is a term that suits our era, so much so that this gem of a book provides a cautionary tale.

Ms. Philips is a British historian at Kingston University in London who specializes in family history and intergenerational conflict. One day in the archives she came across three volumes of “Filial Ingratitude; Or, the Profligate Son,” written between 1807 and 1814 by a William Collins Jackson, who had made his fortune in the East India Company. The memoirs were written in the hope of clearing his name. It is the story of an imperfect young boy who grew up to become a flawed man; it is also a fascinating story about a tempestuous relationship between father and son.

Young William Jackson is a figure straight out of the classics: a handsome rogue with dark hair and hazel eyes, born into privilege. While absent of the wit and charm of a Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones or Barry Lyndon, enough of the same intoxicating sense of miscalculation seeps through that we happily follow William’s adventures to his inevitable descent.

To his friends, William was a “good fellow.” As an only son, he was adored by his mother. But to his moralistic and humorless father, rooted in the middle-class values of financial security and social reputation of his own upbringing, William’s reckless spending, endless partying and wild sexual adventures among his wealthy pals was anathema.

At Harrow, mingling among the sons of aristocracy, young William acquired a hatred for authority and a sense of fierce entitlement, taking to heart a popular toast of the day: “May elegant vice prevail over dull virtue.” Upon graduation, William’s record of employment was spotty at best. He yearned for an allowance that would give him an independent life as a gentleman’s son in London.

Evenings were spent prowling through fashionable haunts and indulging in every temptation. For the middle class, promiscuity was dangerous and immoral. Young gentlemen of gentry fathers were encouraged to indulge in sexual conquests. The maxim was, “Whenever you can, whomever you can, with safety.” Handsome William found ample opportunities to bolster his battered self-esteem with various sexual conquests, though he battled venereal disease his entire life.

Maintaining the outward accouterments of honor and status was easily attained, once William learned to manipulate the system of credit among tailors, hatters, bootmakers, watchmakers, gunsmiths and wine merchants. Horses and carriages were hired to ferry him to masquerade balls and the odd hotel. Cash was available to pay the prostitutes, and always, always, there was his father to foot the bill. In those days, credit and financial status was granted by personal reputation. Jackson Senior regarded his own word, including his signature, as sacrosanct; young William learned how to sign his name so it resembled his father’s signature.

By law, even the most parsimonious father was obliged to support his son financially until the age of 21. But William’s hedonistic behavior produced a constant clash; not even his mother was able to effect a reconciliation. More often than not, William fled home, though not before once leaving this carefully scripted note: “I have, Sir, unfortunately for myself, a spirit which ill accords with your disposition, and for that reason I left your house.” Once in London, William waltzed into shops of various tradesmen, ordering clothes for an elegant prostitute he introduced as his wife, and engaged in duels. His father eventually tracked him down and found him enjoying breakfast at the Blue Boar Inn, where, “with studied nonchalance,” William listened to his father “recite a catalog of his sins,” and answered him with such “studied dignity” that the older man was stunned into absolute silence.

But not for long. Verbal skirmishes were replaced with letters mixing threats, gratitude and desperation. Determined to teach the boy a lesson, the father saw that young William was confined to debtors prison. Once released, the wayward boy committed the capital offense of forging checks. Then it was on to Newgate, teeming with rats and misery, straight out of Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders.” Young William somehow escaped the death penalty, but was shipped to Australia. Convinced of his innocence, resentful to the end, he died an alcoholic, penniless and alone.

There the tale would have ended, lost to history, or as in Thomas Hardy’s words, into “oblivion’s swallowing sea,” except for the marvelous discovery and exquisite narrative skill of Nicola Phillips, who has produced a satisfying historical portrait that seems straight out of “A Rake’s Progress” by William Hogarth or the pages of Jane Austen.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices,” published by the Library of America.