Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nicola Phillips's "The Profligate Son"

Nicola Phillips is an expert in gender history, and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Politics at Kingston University, she is also the Course Director of the History MA at Kingston. Phillips gained her PhD in history at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2001, and her first book was on women in business from 1700 to 1850. Her research focuses on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century gender, work, family conflict, and criminal and civil law.

Here Phillips dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, The Profligate Son: Or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain:
When I first started researching The Profligate Son almost everyone I told about the amazingly dramatic, but unpublished, three volume ‘diary’ it was based on, thought it must be a work of fiction. So naturally, while my long days in the archive were taken up with forensic research to check its veracity, my evenings were often passed in pleasant discussions of ‘who would play the key characters’ if the book ever became a movie.

The lead character is of course the Profligate Son himself, William Jackson, a slight but handsome lad with hazel eyes and brown hair, who was equally capable of exuding great charm and practicing shocking deceit. The actor who plays William would need to be convincing as a carefree, popular public schoolboy of 16 and then portray the corrosive physical and mental effects of a dissipated lifestyle, frequent imprisonment, and mounting disillusion, until his tragic death at the age of 35. Six years ago, when I started writing this book, I thought a young looking David Tennant (Dr Who) would be perfect for the part, but who would I choose now? I think Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has boyish charm and an ability to portray dark brooding emotion; or, perhaps the talented Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man).

The other lead character is William’s father, Mr. Jackson, a wealthy but financially prudent East India Company merchant. He was a socially ambitious man possessed of an unshakeable moral certainty in the rightness of his own actions, and a fierce sense of personal injustice. He loved his precious only son but believed his prime duty as a father was to educate and discipline William. As a result, he was almost incapable of displaying either affection or approval. The emotional cost of his failure to control William and his fear of social disgrace was the onset of a creeping paralysis of his limbs. I think Ralph Fiennes (The Duchess) could portray this most disappointed of fathers with aplomb.

William’s mother, Jane Jackson, adored her errant son and worried constantly about his health and safety. Yet she was compelled to cut him off from her affection (sometimes by her husband) in a fruitless attempt to stop his bad behaviour. These resolutions never lasted long, however, and she found ways to secretly help William when he was in prison. On the surface, Jane was elegant, obedient and reserved - a model of wifely propriety. Yet her third husband (she buried two but never lacked suitors) described her as ‘hot and passionate’ and she was a talented artist. I think the superb Kristin Scott Thomas could turn in a powerful performance of a woman with hidden depths who lost her husband and her son, but retained her passion for life.

Two other key characters in William’s life were his uncles, Sir George Shee and John Evelyn, both of whom were former East India Company employees. For a long time John Evelyn called William his favourite nephew. He was a gentle natured, kind man, who followed a less stringent moral code than Jackson – he had an illegitimate son with his Indian mistress – and saw more good than bad in William. Sir George Shee rose furthest in society, as a baronet and member of parliament, but he too had got trouble in his youth and consequently viewed William’s early misdemeanours with greater understanding. I think Colin Firth (a consummate English gentleman) should play Evelyn, and Clive Owen the more powerful George Shee, who support the Jacksons through their family tragedy.
Learn more about the book and author at Nicola Phillips's website.

--Marshal Zeringue