British academic Phillips (History/Kingston Univ.; Women in Business, 1700-1850, 2006) 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.
In the late 1700s, William Jackson was a middling-born Englishman of the merchant class who ventured from Exeter to India to make his fortune. Jackson did indeed work his way up in the East India Company, and he married well and produced a son, also named William. But in 1798, a violent run-in with an ascendant poligar (chieftain) led to Jackson's disgrace and dismissal. He returned to England a wealthy man, however, and moved his family to the fashionable town of Bath. Son William was the apple of his father’s eye, imbued with his sense of entitlement and hopes for social advancement but, unfortunately, Phillips writes, lacking in Jackson's self-discipline and probity. The boy bounced around various elite schools, proving himself “the most turbulent and refractory of pupils.” By age 16, William had fallen in with a group of aristocratic scoundrels in London who frequented prostitutes, ran up debts and drank prodigiously. A stint in the military ended badly, leaving the “thorny question of William’s status and condition in life...once more at the heart of the dispute between father and son.” Their feud deepened with William's trail of rash debts, which led to incarceration in various debtors’ prisons and ultimately the threat of hanging. Jackson finally washed his hands of his son, who was eventually transported to Australia. The author draws heavily from Jackson’s own unpublished memoir, as well as extensive research in Britain's Georgian era.
An immensely readable work of literary depths.