The Profligate Son: Or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain

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Foppish, impulsive, and philandering: William Jackson was every Georgian parent's worst nightmare. Gentlemen were expected to be honorable and virtuous, but William was the opposite, much to the dismay of his father, a well-to-do representative of the East India Company in Madras. In The Profligate Son, historian Nicola Phillips meticulously reconstructs William's life from a recently discovered family archive, describing how his youthful misbehavior reduced his family to ruin. At first, William seemed destined for a life of great fortune, but before long, he was indulging regularly in pornography and brothels and using his father's abundant credit to swindle tradesmen. Eventually, William found himself in debtor's prison and then on a long, typhus-ridden voyage to an Australian penal colony. He spent the rest of his days there, dying a pauper at the age of thirty-seven.

A masterpiece of literary nonfiction as dramatic as any Dickens novel, The Profligate Son transports readers from the steamy streets of India, to London's elegant squares and seedy brothels, to the sunbaked shores of Australia, tracing the arc of a life long buried in history.
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About the author

Nicola Phillips is a lecturer in history at Kingston University, London, and author of Women in Business. She lives in Surrey, England.
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Basic Books
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Published on
Aug 27, 2013
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History / Modern / 19th Century
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Anne Duncan, 32 and divorced, is constrained by moralistic precepts inculcated by her dead father. She meets charming Scott Evans, impoverished college senior with a dazzling smile, but 10 years her junior. He invites her for coffee; she ends up paying for wine and cheesecake, epitomizing his approach to life. He claims a preference for older women, but the relationship remains platonic, despite a promising interlude in his condo. Then Scott runs off to Europe with another woman.

Facing reality, she must find a way to earn more money. Best friend, Kathy Marlow recommends her to a small press in Tucson, but the venture fails. Anne ends up back in San Diego where Kathy introduces her to irreverent Teri Lawson. The two, similar in age but disparate in outlook, decide to share a place. A year later, Anne encounters Scott with Kathy. She'd avoided him after learning he was Kathy's lover and that, instead of going to medical school, he was working on a master's in psych. And he looks remarkably prosperous.

Anne fills in for Kathy at Scott's Commencement. His change in fortune astounds her. He drives a Porsche and has an expensive condo in posh La Jolla. He's evasive about the source of his wealth but invites her to stay the night. Next day Anne complains to Teri that, when about to make love, she'd envision Kathy's face and freeze. Later she learns of Kathy's intention to break off with Scott. Teri cautions Anne that Scott's actions prove he thinks of no one but himself. Rejecting the warning, Anne goes to a jam session with Scott and has a good time, ignoring the fact his friends are surprised Scott isn't with his usual date, Adrienne. Lovemaking that night is all Anne had hoped for.

Choosing to ignore his selfishness, Anne moves in with Scott. Kathy warns her about Adrienne, but Scott claims Adrienne merely helped furnish his townhouse. Scott is extremely generous; Anne can't imagine returning to her previous penurious life-style. Then he reveals the source of his wealth. He's blackmailing Adrienne, having chanced to get photos of her pushing her millionaire husband over the edge of Grand Canyon. His revelation shocks Anne but rather than endanger her life of luxury, she goes along with Scott. He insists she meet Adrienne who treats her abominably.

Anne's shocked again when Teri's imprisoned for murdering her own lover. Thoughts of prison terrify Anne and are multiplied when she visits Teri in jail. Unable to face years in prison, Teri commits suicide. Devastated, Anne's grateful for Scott's support and agrees to a nostalgic trip to the Grand Canyon. She loves the Canyon and tells Scott how essential he is to her. That night his declaration of love thrills her. But next day they visit the spot where Adrienne murdered her husband. Scott gleefully recalls forcing Adrienne to strip and submit to sex. Except now she enjoys it. Enraged, Anne pushes him over the edge, then too late spots a man with a camera approaching. She shoves the surprised man aside and runs.

Hurrying home to La Jolla, she she ferrets out hidden cash and incriminating photos of Adrienne. Fleeing to Mexicoshe's fluent in Spanishshe ends up in La Paz. Convinced the whole thing is Adrienne's fault and, on the strength of the photos, she calls the woman and orders her to bring $100,000 in cash. When Anne goes to pick up the money, she finds not only Adrienne but Earl, the camera-carrying man she'd pushed down and, alive and well, Scott. He says she faces a long prison term for attempted murder. He offers her two choices: immediately submit to humiliating punishment from a vengeful Adrienne and then return to La Jolla as the older woman's maid or be left naked and penniless in Mexico, a fugitive from justice.

Anne opts for the latter, but two Mexican peons happen along and, thinking her a whore, try to rape her. She's saved by the arrival of a limo carrying Julio Morena, Mario Fuentes, and Don Cesar Olivera. They provi

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