Book review: The Profligate Son, by Nicola Phillips

 

A wealthy gentleman’s son, William Jackson (1791-1828), went seriously to the bad. His short life was one long round of drink, women, and debt – which meant debtors’ prisons and then transportation to Australia where, despite considerable luck, he eventually died, drunk and alone, on a Sydney street aged 38.

Jackson senior, meanwhile, disowned his only son. The boy had miserably failed to rectify the shortcomings of his father, a former East India Company man with blots on his copybook. As in so many families, the father/son relationship in this case was complex and dogged by inflexibility and the total inability of either man to understand the other’s problems. Nicola Phillips’s excellently researched book ensures that, 200 years later, we see both points of view and she is especially good at comparing William’s difficulties with those facing young people today, as well as using his tragic story to illuminate Regency attitudes.

Phillips is also strong and graphic on the horrifying experience of imprisonment on hulks and transport ships which, in William’s case, aboard the Surry [sic], included corrupt leadership, lice, rats, typhus, and the death of most of the senior crew as the vessel confronted the storms in the Tasman Sea.

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