The Queen Against Defoe: And Other Stories

Stefan Heym

Lawrence Hill 1974
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Set in London in the reign of Queen Anne, right at the beginning of the 18th century, "The Queen Against Defoe" is told from the perspective of the odious Josiah Creech, lackey to the Earl of Nottingham, who is charged with hunting down and punishing Daniel Defoe for his publication of the satirical pamphlet "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters". Creech succeeds, with much trouble, in getting Defoe first into Newgate prison and then into the pillory, but finds that doesn't suffice to silence him.

The novella is fiction — Creech himself is not historical — but follows the historical events fairly closely and includes excerpts from Defoe's writings. With some nicely described people and locations, Heym presents a lively London, subject to a fever of political ideas and the enthusiasms of print (Defoe is first tracked down through the type used in his pamphlet).

Less universal aspects of the case, such as the actual content of Defoe's political and religious beliefs, are largely ignored and Heym focuses on the individual facing the state, on the freedom and moral integrity required by the writer. "The Queen Against Defoe" is clearly a parable for his own relationship with the German Democratic Republic. The collection has an introductory interview "The Creator and the Commissars", in which Heym describes the difficulties he faced: he was allowed to publish in the West, but most of his works, including this one, were for many years banned in the GDR itself.

Accompanying the novella in this collection are three short stories. The most memorable, "A Very Good Second Man", has a similar autobiographical resonance. In this case the protagonist is an engineer who has had the credit for his work taken by a colleague. His story reveals the hypocrisies and failings of the socialist state but also explains his persistent commitment and loyalty both to his profession and to socialism.

In "Across the Fence" a housewife's life takes an unexpected turn when one of the Party's ruling elite moves in next door; it offers an everyday perspective on the abuses and demands of power. And "The Wachsmuth Syndrome", originally published in Playboy, takes a fairly clich├ęd science fiction plot, men turning into women, and doesn't do very much with it.

April 2012

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%T The Queen Against Defoe
%S And Other Stories
%A Heym, Stefan
%I Lawrence Hill
%D 1974
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0882080415
%P 114pp