Falstaff: A Novel

Falstaff: A Novel

by Robert Nye

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Winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize

The most beloved comic figure in English literature decides that history hasn’t done him justice—it’s time for him to tell the whole unbuttoned story, his way. Irascible and still lecherous at eighty-one, Falstaff spins out these outrageously bawdy memoirs as an

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Winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize

The most beloved comic figure in English literature decides that history hasn’t done him justice—it’s time for him to tell the whole unbuttoned story, his way. Irascible and still lecherous at eighty-one, Falstaff spins out these outrageously bawdy memoirs as an antidote to legend, and in the process manages to recreate his own. This splendidly written novel is a feast, opening wide the look and feel of another age and bringing Shakespeare’s Falstaff to life in a totally new way. Like Jack Falstaff himself, it’s sprawling, vivid, oversized—big as life. We return in an instant to an England that was ribald, violent, superstitious, coursing with high spirits and a fresh sense of national purpose. We see what history and the Bard of Avon overlooked or avoided: what really happened that celebrated night at the windmill when Falstaff and Justice Shallow heard the chimes at midnight; who really killed Hotspur; how many men fell at the Battle of Agincourt; what actually transpired at the coronation of Henry V ("Harry the Prig"); and just what it was that made the wives of Windsor so very merry.

Falstaff "tells all" about Prince Hal, John of Gaunt ("that maniac"), Pistol, Bardolph, Doll Tearsheet, and Jane Nightwork. At the same time, his racy narrative offers us a tapestry of the Middle Ages: the Black Death and May Day; an expedition to Ireland and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; nights at the Boar’s Head; the splendor of London Bridge; and hundreds of other sights and sounds and people zestfully recalled between scabrous opinions and irreverent meditations—in sum, the very flavor of a great age. The voice is unmistakably Falstaff’s and his great drama swaggers, laughs, and shouts across every page.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
First published in England in 1976 and long awaited by American fans of Nye's Mrs. Shakespeare: The Complete Works and The Late Mr. Shakespeare, this unabashedly bawdy and outrageously raunchy winner of the Hawthornden Prize and Guardian Fiction Prize is a takeoff on such classic literary erotica as Fielding's Tom Jones and Cleland's Fanny Hill. The novel unfolds as the true-life memoirs of one of the Immortal Bard's most memorable characters, the feckless soldier of fortune Falstaff, aka Sir John Fastolf, based upon a real-life knight reputed to be cowardly. Dictated to various household secretaries as he is nearing death at age 81, Falstaff's fictional memoir opens with the extravagant claim that he was conceived under a fig tree planted on the phallus of the legendary figure of the giant of Cerne carved into the chalk hillside near Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Now an octogenarian, the old rooster gleefully crows about the size of his own member and a sexual dalliance with his 15-year-old niece. Graphically chronicling seven decades of debauchery, Nye revisits Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I depiction of Falstaff as the father figure for young Prince Hal (soon to become Henry V), who publicly rejects him along with his rather reprehensible companions when fickle Hal assumes the throne following his father's death (Henry IV, Part 2). Purporting to set history aright, the narrative offers a Walter Mittyesque version of the infamous rogue's exploits in the boudoir and battlefield. Annotated with snide naysaying asides from his stepson, this delightfully raucous, slyly insightful fable gently closes the book on Falstaff as a bittersweet metaphor for the foibles of everyman. (Oct.) Copyright 2001Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Arcade Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.60(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

About the begetting of Sir John Fastolf

New Year's Day

I was begotten on the giant of Cerne Abbas.

    That will do. It's true. Start there.

    Now introduce me:

    John Fastolf — Jack to my familiars, John to my brothers and my sisters, Sir John to all Europe — Knight of the most noble Order of the Garter (once removed, but I'll come to that), Lord of Lasuze, Governor of Anjou and Maine, Captain of Le Mans, Grand Butler of Normandy, Baron of Silly-le-Guillem, Constable of Bordeaux, Lieutenant of Harfleur, Keeper of the Bastille of St Anthony in Paris, master of Caister Castle and Castle Combe, owner of the Boar's Head tavern, warrior and gentleman, hey diddle diddle and hey diddle dan, fill in the details later, all the titles, Thing of Thing, This of That, all the bloody rest of it, feedum fiddledum fee — me, Fastolf, now telling you the true story of my life and the history of my valiant deeds, starting my telling today, the 25th day of March, New Year's Day of the year of our Lord 1459, which is I think the 37th year in the reign of his majesty King Henry the 6th, the prickless holy wonder, son of Harry the Prig, of Gadshill and Agincourt, and which is rather more certainly and much more vitally the 81st year of my own great march to heaven.

    That will be the longest sentence in the book. Don't worry. I don't like long sentences either.

    My feet itch.




    Worcester, if you really don't know the difference you must be one or the other or both yourself.

    Write down every word I say, just as I say it, or I assure you I will have your balls for full-stops.

    Captain of the Palace of Rouen — I am the man who built the tower there, above the river Seine on the east side. Sometime Grand Master of the Household of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of the Kingdom of France.

    G A D S hill, you marvellous bloody fool, an expedition as famous in its day as the one at Agincourt. I should know. I fought in both.

    Everything the way I tell it, in the order I give it to you, none of your literature. When a man has scaled as many ramparts and breached as many maidenheads as I have, he doesn't need to make a sentence bob and curtsey.

    Bless me, father. Bugger all. Whoops. We're off then.

    It was a fig tree they lay under, my father and my mother, my father under the fig tree and my mother under my father, and the fig tree growing on the giant's sex.

    A dark religious wayfarer — my uncle Hugh used to say Wiclif himself, hot down from Oxford, not yet a heretic but riding a lollardy donkey and preaching in the churchyards after Mass — this wandering Wiclif comes along shouting that the giant is the Devil's work. He recognised him no doubt as a survivor of that race descended from the 33 wicked daughters of Diocletian. He sweats in the sun with hammer and boards, disgust and nails, and builds himself a pulpit on the giant's stalk, for the purpose of delivering a sermon against it.

    'Gentlemen of Dorset,' Wiclif thunders, 'I stand here on the worst part of our human nature.'

    It is ten yards long, the cock of the giant of Cerne Abbas. The giant himself is a hillside high. His outline is a white chalk-filled trench as wide as my arm and two feet deep. His inside is complete in every part — ribs, nipples, eyebrows, belly-button. In his right hand he carries a knobbled club pointing up to the clouds. His left hand saws the air as he steps westward. His member is magnificently erect. Nearby is the abbey founded by St Augustine, with the silver spring that gushed up at his wink.

    Don't imagine that this forked radish Wiclif got red in the face preaching to sheep. Every seven years the giant is scoured, to keep his art safe from the grass. Some that live in those valleys have an inherited obligation to repair and cleanse him. If they didn't, in time he would turn green like the rest of the hill and be forgotten. It was at the festival of the scouring that Wiclif criticised the giant's erection, and there was a good-sized crowd to listen to his opinions, after they had wrestled for silver buckles and jumped in sacks and raced for cheeses rolled down the giant's legs.

    'It should be covered,' Wiclif complains.

    'Cover the giant?' A great laugh goes up in the sun. 'How could you cover it?'

    Wiclif considers, calling to mind his education, and then he announces: 'In Greek times, the statues were given fig leaves to hide what should not be seen by shamefast eyes.'

    'Extraordinary big fig leaf you'll need here,' points out some Pythagoras of the hedgerows.

    Wiclif said: 'Let it be a fig tree then!'

    And, lo, there was a fig tree. Wiclif's disciples planted one when the greasy pole had been taken down and the seven-year scouring was over. That is why in those days, before they were called Lollards, some called his people Figgers. They dug diligently, these flesh-abhorring Figgers, and they planted their fig tree on the wick of the Cerne giant, with a purpose to obscure the terrible splendour of him from the eyes of virgins passing on the road through the valley below.

    Now, life being what it is, the villagers of Cerne Abbas found that fig tree a useful and appropriate addition to their giant's attributes. In summer it was cool and shady to lie under, and a man and a woman could be secret there. In winter, it kept some of the rain off.

    Glasses, glasses, is the only drinking. Tell Macbeth he can pawn or smash the plate.

    My mother was a well-known wearer-out of husbands. (This is not criticism. I do not criticise. I observe.) She had been married three times before she met my father, joined to fellows of substance too, none of your Johns of Gaunt — men of pepper, ginger, cloves, my ghostly fathers, who did not fail to make me for a lack of kidneys. Yet knock as they might, I did not answer. Ferret as they did in her sweet little moss-grown coney patch, there was never a scut of a child.

    Put it away, Worcester. You'll never get to heaven doing that.

    My father was a man of iron will. He had a red beard and eyes like caves. He married my mother sensibly for the triple joy of her widowhood, the three estates, but he was concerned — as an English country gentleman and an epitome of the chivalric virtues — with the making of a son.

     Having heard well of the giant's child-inspiring powers, my father takes my mother by the hand and leads her up to him the night before their wedding. It had been a hot day, the hottest day that any man could remember, the skylarks swooning in the sticky air, milk turning sour in the cows' udders. At the end of that hottest day now it is suddenly Midsummer Eve and the giant stands out bold and wonderful and monstrous on his long green Dorset hill, the moon at the full above his knobbled club. My father lays my mother down on the giant's thistle, in the modest shade of Mr Wiclif's burgeoning fig tree.

    'Dear heart,' says he, taking off his spurs and his liripipe hat, 'I shall require an heir.'

    If ever widow woman blushed then my mother blushed hot when she saw my father unbuttoned above her in the moonlight. 'My womb,' says she, 'is empty.'

    My father engages the key in the lock. It is well-oiled. He turns and enters and makes himself at home.

    'I have been told,' he says,

    'that any true woman,' he says,

    'childless,' he adds,

    'who lies,' he says,

    'on the Cerne giant,' —my father

    takes a shuddering juddering breath—

    'conceives without fail,' he explains.

    My father goes on, without need of saying.

    It is sixty yards if it is an inch from the top to the toe of the giant of Cerne Abbas. The creature's club alone must be every bit of forty yards.

    'O Gog,' says my mother eventually. 'O Gog, O Gog, O Gog.'

    'I do believe,' says my father, 'Magog.'

    Now, in the moment of my conception, as a star falls into my mother's left eye, as the wind catches its breath, as the little hills skip for joy, and the moon hides her face behind a cloud — a bit of local history. When St Augustine came calling in those parts the people of Cerne tied a tail to his coat and whipped him out of their valley. The saint was furious. He got down on his knees and prayed to God to give tails to all the children that were born in Dorset. 'Right,' said the Omnipotence. This went on, tails, tails, tails, tails, until the folk regretted their pagan manners. When they expressed their regret, St Austin came back and founded the abbey, calling it Cernal because he was soon seeing his visions there — from the Latin, cerno, I see, and the Hebrew, El, God.

    That's enough history. I prefer mystery.

    The sun at my making was in the sign of Libra near Venus. The moon was in Capricorn. My conceptual Jupiter, so they tell me, is on Joan of Arc's Saturn, and my Mars up her Uranus.

Excerpted from Falstaff by ROBERT NYE. Copyright © 1976 by Robert Nye. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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