- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

By Donna T. Andrewand Randall McGowan
University of California Press, $35, 346 pages, illus.

In March, 1775, Robert Perreau, a prosperous and respected London apothecary, asked a banker acquaintance, Henry Drummond, to lend him money to help buy a house. As security, he offered the bond signed by William Adair, a well known financier.
This was a typical way of doing business in late-18th-century London. Lacking a fully developed banking system, loans were often made among friends and third-party bonds were a common collateral. When all went well, the lender repaid the bond with interest, but if the lender defaulted, the signer of the bond was liable for the debt. Much therefore depended on all parties knowing each other, at least by reputation.
Looking at the bond Perreau presented, Drummond immediately spotted that the handwriting was not Adair's, with whom he had done previous business. Perreau asserted that the bond was genuine, and readily agreed to meet with Adair to prove the point. Adair, however, said he neither knew Perreau nor had he signed the bond. Perreau now explained that Margaret Rudd, common-law wife of his twin brother Daniel, had given him the bond. When brought to the meeting, she confessed to forging it. Personable and intelligent, she claimed no wish to injure anybody, and persuaded Drummond and Adair not to pursue the matter.
Perreau then took the startling step of reporting the forgery to a magistrate a risky move because forgery was a capital offense, and those who tried to pass forged bonds were deemed as guilty as the forgers. Robert Perreau sought legal immunity in return for evidence against Mrs. Rudd. It was not granted and soon he and his brother were behind bars. Three months later they were convicted of forgery. A press outcry against the weakness of the case led to the trial of Mrs. Rudd at the end of the year. By this time she had withdrawn her initial story and claimed to have been coerced by her "husband" Daniel into faking Adair's signature. She was acquitted, and two months later Robert and Daniel Perreau were hanged.
This episode left a lot of loose ends. At their trials the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd told radically different stories and they generated a huge volume of press attention a documentary lode painstakingly mined by Donna T. Andrew and Randall McGowan in "The Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd: Forgery and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century London." Though the authors claim surprise at the press interest in the story at a time when events in the American colonies were shaking Britain's empire, their book pinpoints the source of the fascinated interest in the outcome of the trials. This was a capital crime committed by apparently respectable, rather fashionable, members of society. But who actually forged the bond? Was it the Perreaus? Or was it Mrs. Rudd? Or did some or all of them collude in it?
Unclouded answers to these questions can never shine forth. Though the brothers eventually settled on a story, they had previously offered contradictory accounts of what had happened. The authors sift detail and theorize about motive, suggesting that Robert Perreau was almost certainly guilty of nothing except trying to use the bond, while Daniel was probably more culpable. As for Mrs. Rudd, she not only changed her tale, but also wrote and published numerous broadsides and letters to newspapers proclaiming her innocence and the brothers' perfidy. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes sentimental, they veil what happened in a chiffon of words. The authors throw weighty doubts on her accounts, and it is hard to resist their conclusion that she was the guilty party, though they cannot prove it.
Indeed, meticulous as they are in sorting the gold of fact from the dross of lies, gossip, cant and calumny, the authors' aim is not to solve the riddle of the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd, but to illuminate it by grounding it in the reality of London life as Britain was becoming the most powerful nation in the world. From this point of view, the rumblings in its American colonies and the contemporaneous financial scandals in India were distant side issues: important yes, but like most foreign policy matters of little domestic concern to any except those directly involved. As ever and everywhere, getting on was the crucial thing for most people, and the authors show that 18th-century England was a good place to do it.
Take the Perreaus, for example. They came from a French Huguenot family, who had arrived in England in the late-17th century, when Louis XIV began persecuting Protestants. The success of their family witnesses the relative openness of English society. Both Robert and Daniel Perreau lived affluently, and both wanted to take advantage of England's financial opportunities. As an apothecary to wealthy households, Robert was increasingly well-off. But Daniel was often strapped for cash because he dabbled in shares. In a mercantile nation with the world's first industrial revolution well underway, there was money to be made and also money to be lost.
Not picking winners was Daniel's problem, but it was compounded by Mrs. Rudd's love of fine clothes, furniture and jewels. Though not legally married to him, she lived openly as his wife and tried to claim a wife's privilege of being under his control for legal purposes. She led him to believe that her distant family connections to financiers and minor aristocrats were going to pay off. As much as Daniel, she was on the make, but as a woman, she had fewer and different opportunities. Her best chance was to marry a rich man; failing that to find someone to "keep" her. As a "kept" woman, she could hope for her own establishment, and many such women thus found a way to fortune. Mrs. Rudd was not quite so lucky because of Daniel's gambling in stocks hence she tried her hand at forgery.
The authors' descriptions of London's fashionable and financial worlds show how easy it was to climb a ladder and just as easy to slither down a chute to the bottom, as the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd did. Less dramatically, but equally interesting, they show the intersections of England's draconian but painstaking legal system with a vigorous press free to speculate and expound on the scandal. What is most remarkable about this is the extent to which the public participated. Letters to the editor were not the curt missives we see today. Many were full-scale essays debating fine legal, moral and financial points. Awaiting trial in prison, Mrs. Rudd herself published many pamphlets explaining her position and refuting her critics. Eventually, she even tried her hand at a novel.
While the information assembled in "The Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd" is never less than interesting and the authors succeed in portraying the mosaic of interests comprising London life in the 18th century, the organization of their book leads them into repetition and sometimes turgidity. It begins with an account of Robert Perreau's presentation of the forged bond, then unfolds its tale through chapters explicating the legal system, the banking world, the world of courtesans, the press and so on. As the focus changes, momentum often flags and material is sometimes repeated. In the end one would like a clearer picture of the three protagonists, especially the twin brothers. Put another way, one longs for the hand of a Thackeray. Absent that blessing, Donna T. Andrew's and Randall McGowan's account both interests and persuades.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic living in Amherst, Mass

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