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By Nicola Phillips. Basic Books. 360 pages. $28.99
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Nicola Phillips’ latest historical work, “The Profligate Son, Or A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain,” is the latest in a long line of “microhistories.”
The basic concept of a microhistory is report on a particular instance or person in history, and then connect that to the greater social, economic or cultural attitudes surrounding them. In many cases, most notably, in Thomas Robisheaux’s “The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village,” or Douglas Starr’s “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” the main figures are fascinating, and the narrative is easily propelled forward.
The problem with microhistories, however, is that they often require the reader to have some interest in the time period or the person, or that there be some tangible connection to modern readers. “The Last Witch of Langenburg” explored the origins of some of our modern superstitions about witches; “Little Shepherds” discussed the birth of forensic science.
This is where “The Profligate Son” struggles.
While performing research in England, Phillips stumbled across a series of letters and narratives written by William Collins Jackson about his son, William Jackson. As Phillips researched more, she discovered a mystery: How can the son of a well-to-do Englishman end up broke and dead in the middle of the street in Sydney, Australia?
The keys to this are the attitudes during the time period toward debtors, and how these debtors often negatively affected the social standing of their fathers, who were assumed to be inadequate parents to have raised a child so unable to comprehend finances. To prove this, Phillips brings in broadsides, books, essays, letters and cartoons that display the “sin” of profligacy during Britain’s Regency period .
Of course, the main focus of this narrative is William Jackson, who, as ne’er-do-wells go, is at the top of the list, and perhaps it is his very historical characterization that makes the reader lose interest: He’s just not a terribly interesting or likable fellow, and one gets the sense that Phillips realizes this too. Many of her chapters are stuffed with outside sources and references, and we receive the bare-bones record (which, to be fair, is probably all that exists), of a man who is a drunkard and who often embezzles or steals money. By the time he dies, it is exceptionally hard to work up any sympathy for him, and this is where the concept of the work suffers: While Phillips does an admirable job of exploring just how much of a “sin” profligacy was, the book often feels overlong as a result. The concept, after all, is not too difficult to grasp, especially with her admirable number of historical sources.
The narrative reads well, however, and those who have an interest in English social history may be interested in this work, although Phillips does stumble once or twice. During the introduction and conclusion of the work, Phillips (possibly at the behest of her worried editor) includes commentary on today’s youth and their seemingly relaxed attitude toward debt. While true, the passages fail to tie interest into the life of William Jackson; after all, the days of debtor’s prisons and banishing people to faraway lands have passed. Instead, these sections reek of Phillips making an excuse for the relevance of the story today, and the connection is terribly weak. As a result, instead of strengthening the reader’s interest in the narrative, it has the opposite effect: Phillips clearly overreached in stating the modern implications of the work.
While William Jackson’s story may be interesting to historians and buffs of Regency Britain, the wider audience may find themselves unable to connect with his plight.
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