The Regency attracts high-rolling partner words: rakes, dandies, bucks, romances. Men had never looked sexier: status could be assured through investment in swagger and conspicuous consumption.
What we don’t often think of now is how self-fashioning was paid for. Nicola Phillips’ exploration of a case study of a roguish son makes the finance of style fascinating. Even as a schoolboy, William Jackson longed for fast horses, smart clothes and sexual intrigues, and he was quick-witted enough to procure them. His dismayed father moved him through a succession of schools, where his errant son rebelled against moralising and vicious masters, whose human frailty was evident in only one case, where a preachy teacher was himself collared by bailiffs and thrown into a sponging house. Jackson became adept at appearances, fooling the tradesmen whose assessment of creditworthiness relied on a typology of manners, clothes and confidence. Intermittently contrite, he suggested a career in the army, which he then blew in a spectacular convergence of wine, women and drunkenly shouting at his superiors. By now his father’s feelings had turned from chagrin to rue, from reproach to resentment, and he lectured his son in long letters that he made up into three volumes grimly titled Filial Ingratitude. There were reconciliations, bust-ups, sprees on the town, arrests, acquittals, more arrests. At Newgate, Jackson pleaded that he was a gentleman. He got off to go and swindle the citizens of Cheltenham before his creditors caught up with him, dead set on nailing him at last.
After I had read The Profligate Son, I walked down Regent Street, looking for ghosts: here Jackson bought shirts and squired a mistress; here he forged signatures to pay for them. It’s a very sad story: Phillips tells it impeccably, in racy parts interspersed with compelling accounts of daily life in debtors’ prisons; she evokes and explains the illusionary and illusory nature of credit. She writes brilliantly about the high roller’s descent into low life; about how society looked both ways, to money and to morals (how familiar is that?); about the nuances of fraud, forgery and great expectations.
For Jackson, crime paid, for a while, but eventually the profligate son was banished from home. He was transported to Australia, where he faded away, his last traces erased, ironically, by a son who never spoke of him. At the end, Phillips wonders whether today’s credit crisis and consumerism is kin to the Regency, with its promissory notes, its credit culture and youths eager to fashion themselves in designer gear. She should be its historian.
Clare Brant is professor of 18th-century literature and culture, King’s College London.
The Profligate Son Or, a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency England
By Nicola Phillips
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £14.99
Published 1 October 2015