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In The Profligate Son, historian Nicola Phillips hauntingly reconstructs this family tragedy from a recently discovered trove of letters and court documents. After Mr. Jackson’s acquisition of a fortune during his service for the East India Company in Madras was undermined by false accusations that ruined his career, he invested all his future ambitions in his only son. William grew up in great comfort and was sent to the best schools in the country. But when the family moved to London, the teenager rebelled against the loneliness and often brutal regimes of public schooling and escaped to explore the pleasures of the town with his wealthy friends. His attempts to impress his peers led him into disastrous levels of debt that resulted in his imprisonment and ever more illegal efforts to satisfy his creditors, which appalled his prudent, sternly moralistic father. Mr. Jackson decided that the only way to combat his son’s wayward behavior was to completely cut him off. In doing so, he condemned William to repeated imprisonment and a perilous voyage to an Australian penal colony. In Sydney William sought to rebuild his life with a family of his own, but even there his father’s legacy brought further tragedy.
A masterpiece of literary nonfiction as dramatic as any Dickens novel, The Profligate Son transports readers from the steamy streets of India and the elegant squares and seedy brothels of London to the sunbaked shores of Australia, tracing the arc of a life long buried in history.
The Washington Post
"[A] terrific book...[which] can can and should be read as a cautionary tale, albeit one told with style, flair and solid history.”
Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
“Phillips, who writes smooth and beguiling prose, declines to twist her story into a cautionary tale for our times, but the caution is there to be given its due consideration.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A tale of juvenile folly turning into serious crime is afforded by Nicola Phillips's splendid The Profligate Son, which chronicles the fraught relationship between the wealthy East India merchant William Collins Jackson and his son William in the early 19th century. Drawing on Jackson senior's manuscript ‘Filial Ingratitude’ (1807-14), Ms. Phillips charts the boy's chosen path to its sordid and inevitable end and in the process makes an age come wonderfully alive.”
Literary Review, UK
"The engine of this book is its author's empathy, but Phillips also has an eye for detail.... The accounts of the court proceedings and the workings of the legal system in which the boy becomes entangled are as good as anything outside the pages of Bleak House...impossible to forget."
Shelf Awareness For Readers
“The Profligate Son is a fascinating (and all too familiar) story — even today, in our modern era of massive debts.”
“A true Regency tale, with dollops of absorbing social, legal and criminal history thrown in, beautifully told. Warmly recommended.”
The Independent, UK
“An excellently researched book”
"An engrossing tale of a Regency rake’s fast times and tragic unraveling that vivifies the history of Georgian England and colonial Sydney, Australia.”
“An entertaining read, aptly demonstrating how understanding the past can help us better understand our own world as well.”
"An absorbing case study.... Phillips eloquently fills out the bare bones of the known facts of the story.”
"Phillips... portrays an entire social history through the sad unraveling of one newly rich family ruined by the rakish pursuits (blending into criminality) of the sole son and heir.... An immensely readable work of literary depths."
Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Verneys and The Rainborowes
“The Profligate Son held me spellbound from start to finish. Nicola Phillips brings the seamy side of Regency England to life with remarkable clarity, and her anti-hero William Jackson’s headlong descent into a hell of his own making is so vivid and so foolhardy that more than once I wanted to reach into the book and shake some sense into him. A compelling read.”
Margaret R. Hunt, Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies, Amherst College
“Nicola Phillips has given us a compulsively readable story of a young man of good family who went dramatically astray in the fleshpots and gambling houses of Regency England. The book brings to life the glitter, the tawdriness, the promise and the heartbreak of the times in a way that few more conventional histories have done. At the same time it is a perceptive study of two flawed, headstrong men who had the signal misfortune to be father and son.”
Kate Mosse, author of the Languedoc Trilogy
"A gripping story of privilege and power, ungrateful sons and disappointed fathers in Regency England. Phillips brings the period to life with great authority and also sets the history in a thoughtful, modern context. A very enjoyable read."