Book in the news: masterly biography of an economic adventurer

Book review: John Law, A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century An elegantly written biography of the colourful Scottish gambler, financier and early economist.


Buy on Amazon

To say that John Law led a colourful life is an understatement. A gambler, financier and early economist, he advised the French on the reorganisation of their monetary system, but died a poor man after his involvement in what became known as the Mississippi Bubble. This biography by James Buchan looks at his life and career and is full of "Jacobite politics, elopements, prison breaks and court scandal", says James Kelly in The Scotsman. So "even a reader who might sigh at the thought of a book on the dismal science' will find much to savour".

Indeed, one of the flaws of the book is that the author "is curiously uninterested in the actual substance of Law's ideas on money and finance, and in the parallels between Law's experiment and the financial world of today", says Felix Martin in the FT. However, it remains a "masterly" biography. Law has "at last found a biographer who combines an expert understanding of finance, a profound knowledge of 18th-century history, and a novelist's gift for anecdote and pace". It "will take its place deservedly as the standard biography".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

There are times when the author's fondness for genealogy "leads him down sidetracks that serve at best to bewilder and at worst tobore", says Lucy Hughes-Hallett in the New Statesman, and the narrative sometimes "becomes tangled in a mass of extraneous anecdote". However, Buchan is "also capable of pithiness" and his wit is "delightful". Overall, this "erudite, elegantly written" book is like "a successful party" "full of interesting people, variously disgraceful or brilliant, and of compelling stories overlapped".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri