John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century

Written by James Buchan
Review by Lucinda Byatt

James Buchan has written an erudite and highly readable life of John Law, the son of a master goldsmith in Edinburgh. He moved to London, but at barely 24, he was tried for murder and forced to flee to Holland. Buchan conjectures that before leaving England, Law assumed the name George Seigneur to announce his marriage to Lady Katherine Knowles, although the ceremony never took place. Although a gambler, Law had the virtue of being loyal in love – and so was she.

Buchan’s book teems with extraordinary detail about his contemporaries, Parisian life under the regency of Duc d’Orléans, the Banque Générale Law founded in 1717, and the boom-and-bust of the Mississippi Bubble, an investment scheme backed by the French royal bank that brought riches to some and ruin to many. New letters that confirm Law’s reputation as a financial innovator, “the coolest man in the world, who… speaks only in equations”, and also as a patron of art and music. After the drama of the summer of 1720, when the bubble burst, Law escaped to Venice where he died, almost penniless, in 1729. Buchan’s notable biography will be referred to for years as the essential account of this astonishing life.