Birdsong (novel)

Birdsong (novel)

infobox Book |
name = Birdsong
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First UK edition cover
author = Sebastian Faulks
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = UK
language = English
series =
genre = Fiction
War novel
publisher = Hutchinson
release_date = September 16, 1993 (UK)
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
pages = 407 pp
isbn = ISBN 0091773733
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Birdsong" is a 1993 war novel by the English author Sebastian Faulks. Faulks' fourth novel, it tells of a man called Stephen Wraysford at different stages of his life both before and during World War I. Birdsong is part of a trilogy of novels by Sebastian Faulks which includes "The Girl at the Lion d'Or" and "Charlotte Gray" which are all linked through location, history and several minor characters. []

The novel came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read which aimed to find Britain's favourite book. [ [ BBC - The Big Read - Top 100 Books ] ]

Plot introduction

While the majority of the novel concentrates on Stephen's life in France before and during the war, the novel also focuses on the life of Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, and her attempts to find out more about her grandfather's experiences in World War I. The story is split into seven sections which cover three different time periods.


Birdsong has an episodic structure which moves between three different periods of time before, during and after the war.

France 1910

The first stage is set before the war in Amiens, France where Stephen Wraysford goes to learn about the manufacturing process at the Azaire's factory. He stays with the Azaire Family (René, Isabelle, Lisette and Grégoire) and spends the early part of the novel visiting René’s place of work.

It is revealed that René is embarrassed by his inability to father a child and beats his wife in anger. Lisette, a 16 year old girl from Azaire’s first marriage, makes suggestive remarks to Stephen throughout the first section of the novel however Stephen does not share these feelings. René’s friends Bérard, Madame Bérard and Aunt Elise come round for dinner on occasion and occasional visits out.

Lucien Lebrun, one of Azaire's workers gives food to the families of workers which he gets from Isabelle. This occurs behind René's back, due to a threatened strike which eventually happens in the novel but is insignificant to the plot.

Stephen and Isabelle conduct a passionate affair. When René finds out he tells Stephen that he will go to hell. Stephen and Isabelle run away together but Isabelle eventually returns to her sister Jeanne (it is afterwards revealed that Isabelle's and Jeanne's father made a deal with Azaire for Isabelle's return to the family) after feeling guilty for leaving René and the children. Isabelle is forgiven by the family. She becomes pregnant but does not inform Stephen of the pregnancy and eventually raises the child (a girl called Francoise) with a German soldier called Max.

France 1916

We rejoin Stephen some years later as a Lieutenant in the British Army and through his eyes, Faulks tells an incredibly vivid and moving story of the Battle of the Somme and Messines Ridge at Ypres in the following year. The energetic character described in the first chapter of the novel contrasts with the depiction of Stephen hardened by his experiences of war.During his time in the trenches, we learn of Wraysford's mental attitude to the war and the guarded comradeship he feels for his friend Captain Michael Weir and the rest of his men. However, Wraysford is regarded as a cold and distant officer by his men. Stephen refuses all offers of leave so committed is he to fighting on.

His story is paralleled with that of Jack Firebrace, a former miner, employed in the British trenches to listen for the enemy and plant mines under the German trenches. Jack is particularly motivated to fight because of the love he has for his son John back home. Faulks describes how a soldier called Hunt is terrified of going underground as an exploding shell could trap the soldiers underground causing them to suffocate. Stephen is injured in this chapter but survives.

The troops are told to make an attack on the Hawthorne Ridge but the attacks seems doomed to fail with the senior officers being blamed. Gray states that Stephen should not tell his men that the attack will fail but to pray for them instead.

Stephen feels lonely and writes to Isabelle, feeling that he has no one else that he can express his feelings to. He writes about his fears that he will die, and confess that he has only ever loved her. This section of the novel ends with a bombardment leaving many soldiers in no man's land.

England 1978

Alongside the main story, there is the inquisitive narrative of Wraysford's pregnant granddaughter, Elizabeth, who, whilst struggling with her married boyfriend, Robert, unearths the stories of World War I and the remaining links to Wraysford's experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme. Elizabeth finds Stephen's journals and endeavours to decipher them.

France 1917

Weir is on leave and finds it impossible to communicate to his family how bad the war is. Stephen meets with Isabelle and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell. Stephen discovers that Isabelle is now in a relationship with Max a German solider.

Stephen is able to return to England and feels relief at being able to enjoy the Norfolk countryside away from the trenches.

Stephen meets Isabelle's sister Jeanne and tells her how he dreads returning to the front line after leave.

Stephen's closest friend, Michael Weir, is eventually killed by a sniper's bullet while in a trench outside of battle.

England 78-79

Elizabeth continues researching the war and talks to war veterans (Gray and Brennan) about their experiences.

France 1918

The novel ends with Wraysford and Firebrace being trapped underground as the war ends and being rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier. An ending which is clearly inspired by- and deliberately echoes- Wilfred Owen's 1918 poem "".The fact that the German soldier is Jewish should be seen as a debunking by the author of the Nazi lie that German Jews did not fight in the war and 'stabbed the Reich in the back'. In fact some 12 thousand fought and died fighting for Germany in the First World War. [ [ German Jewish Soldiers - Introduction ] ] In the final chapters Jack dies but Stephen survives.

England 1979

Elizabeth finally decides to reveal her pregnancy to her mother, who is surprisingly supportive. Over dinner, she learns her mother was raised by Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfork, after Isabelle's premature death due to an epidemic of the flu. Elizabeth and Robert then go on holiday to rural area in England. There, she goes into labour and has a son, naming him John (after Jack Firebrace's son), therefore keeping the promise which Stephen made to Jack when they were trapped in the tunnels under No Man's Land, over sixty years before.


* Stephen Wraysford - The protagonist of the novel, Stephen goes to Amiens in France to learn more about the manufacturing process at René Azaire's factory. He becomes attracted to Azaire's wife, Isabelle. One night he hears Azaire beat Isabelle and is determined to make her see that true love exists elsewhere. Stephen and Isabelle embark upon a passionate affair which culminates in their leaving Azaire's house together. Stephen is abandoned by Isabelle once she learns that she is carrying his child.
* Our next encounter with Stephen occurs when he is an officer in the British Army during the War. Stephen is not a popular officer, seemingly because he does not love his men enough. It is said of him that he "blows hot and cold." He catches Jack Firebrace sleeping on duty one night and orders him to report the next morning to be charged. Jack fears that he will be executed and endures a sleepless night, only for Stephen to claim no recollection of the incident the following morning. As the war develops, so too do the intricacies of Stephen's personality. He develops a kind of love for the men under his command, refusing the offer of leave or a staff job, preferring instead to remain at the front with his men. At one point, he is badly wounded and is left for dead, thrown naked onto a pile of corpses behind the trenches, only to come stumbling, frenzied and delirious, into the arms of Jack Firebrace. He becomes known as a lucky charm, having survived where many others fell on numerous occasions.
* Stephen has a close relationship with Captain Michael Weir, the commander of the miners. Weir is sexually inexperienced and Stephen brings him to a prostitute so that he may experience a woman for the first time. He also fixes tarot cards for Weir in order to instill in his friend a sense of hope and optimism. Stephen is stricken upon hearing of Weir's death, as he has lost his closest friend, the one person with whom he shared the tragedies of war.
* On leave at Amiens, Stephen is reunited with Isabelle and is lost for words at her appearance, though he has seen much worse during his time at the front. Isabelle still ignites passion in him, and he is desperate to learn if she is still in love with him, though upon hearing from Jeanne that Isabelle has left once more to be with her Prussian, his curiosity is satisfied. Stephen develops a close friendship with Jeanne, depending on her letters while he is at the front. She keeps him going, though he is reluctant to admit this to her.
* When forced to take a staff job for six months, Stephen becomes increasingly despondent. He feels guilty that he has survived while so many others have died needlessly, and feels the war is likely to continue although it has seemed to serve no purpose thus far. He is continually amazed at the sheer determination and courage of his men, dumbstruck by how much they will endure. He confides in Jeanne who urges him to persevere.
* On his return to the front, Stephen becomes trapped in an underground tunnel with Jack Firebrace. He helps to free Jack, whose legs and ribs are broken, from the earth, and for six days endures the horrendous conditions while he endeavours to free both himself and a delirious Jack. Close to death due to thirst and starvation, he manages to blow a hole in the earth and is rescued by three German soldiers, not before promising the dying Jack that he will have children for him.
* Stephen marries Jeanne Fourmentier in 1919. He does not speak for two years after the war, however one day he announces that they will go to London later that day in order to go to the theatre. Stephen dies at the age of forty-eight, having never fully gotten over that which he experienced during the war.

France: 1910

* René Azaire - Factory owner in Amiens. He states that Stephen will go to hell for his affair with his wife Isabelle. Embarrassed by his inability to have a child with his wife he beats Isabelle.
* Isabelle Azaire (Madame Azaire) née Fourmentier - René's wife. Isabelle has an affair with Stephen Wraysford while stuck in her unhappy marriage to René. However after this brief affair Isabelle agrees to return to René (after Rene is convinced by Isabelle's father) and she is forgiven by the family. She is the mother of Françoise by Stephen, though she raised her daughter originally with a German soldier named Max.
* Lisette - Is the sixteen year old daughter of Azaire, and Step-Daughter to Isabelle. Lisette is attracted to Stephen and is nearer his age than Isabelle. She makes suggestive remarks to Stephen throughout his time at the house in Amiens.
* Grégoire - Another child from René's first marriage.
* Bérard - A pompous friend of René Azaire. He goes with the Azaires on a boat trip and considers it his role to conduct conversation by inviting people to speak.
* Madame Bérard - Bérard's wife.
* Aunt Èlise - Madame Bérard's mother.
* Margeurete - A maid employed by the Azaire household.
* Lucien Lebrun - A man who gives food to dyer's families that he gets from Isabelle.
* Meyraux - A supporter of a strike at René's factory.

France 1916, 1917 and 1918

* Jack Firebrace - A tuneller or "sewer-rat". He survived until 1918 when he became trapped while tunneling and died.
* Margaret - Jack's wife.
* John - Jack's child. He dies during the war of diphtheria.
* Captain Weir - An officer close to Stephen Wraysford killed by a German sniper.
* Jeanne Fourmentier - Isabelle's sister who forms a relationship with Stephen Wraysford.

Other soldiers

* O'Lone, Fielding, Shaw, Douglas, Wilkinson, Hunt, Evans, Tipper, Turner, Tyson, Byrne, Colonel Gray and CSM Price.


England: 1978 and 1979

* Elizabeth Benson - Granddaughter of Stephen Wraysford. Elizabeth has a job in company which manufactures garments. She wants to find out more about World War I and her grandfather's actions. She does this by phoning elderly servicemen, visiting war memorials and translating Stephen's diary.
* Mark and Lindsay - Friends of Elizabeth.
* Françoise - Elizabeth's mother, the biological daughter of Stephen and Isabelle who was raised by her father and aunt Jeanne.
* Irene - A work colleague of Elizabeth.
* Bob - Irene's husband. He offers to translate Stephen Wraysford's war diaries for Elizabeth.
* Erich - A work colleague of Elizabeth.
* Robert - A man who works in Brussels whom Elizabeth has an affair with. Robert states that he will eventually leave his wife but is reluctant to do so. Has two children from this marriage.
* Stuart - A man whom Elizabeth has a brief romance with. This ends after Stuart asks Elizabeth to marry him after only a few encounters between them.
* John - Elizabeth's child and therefore Stephen Wraysford's great-grandson, named after John, Jack Firebrace's dead son.

Film Production

Working Title Films have held the screen rights for many years, but are quoted as saying that "there is something afoot" since Faulks' commission to write the new Bond novel. [ [ 26 July 2007] ] The name of screenwriter Andrew Davies has been linked to the film. However, in September 2007 it was announced that Justin Chadwick would direct "Birdsong", with a screenplay by Abi Morgan, to be filming in 2008. [BAMIGBOYE, Baz [ Watch out for...] , The Daily Mail (14 September 2007)]

The rumour that Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter movies might star as the lead role apparently originates in Faulks' saying in 2004: "The film has been supposed to be happening for ten years now [...] All the original actors are now too old [...] By the time it gets made, the star of Harry Potter could end up being old enough to do it - is he a good actor?" [ [ WENN Movie/TV News, 6 July 2004, from IMDB] ] .

In 1997, BBC Radio 4 aired a three-part adaptation of the novel on its Classic Serial programme (27 Oct., 3, 10 Nov.). It was dramatised by Nick Stafford and directed by Claire Grove. Its cast included Toby Stephens (Stephen Wraysford), Sophie Ward (Isabelle Azaire), John Rowe (René Azaire/Robert), Gavin Muir (Jack Firebrace), and Rachel Atkins (Elizabeth Benson).

imilar works

"Birdsong" has often been named Sebastian Faulks' best work of fiction- it received an 'also mentioned' credit in "The Observer"'s 2005 poll of critics and writers to find the "Best British book of the last 25 years" (1980-2005). His literary retelling of the events and attitudes towards the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches is highly acclaimed and is often grouped with work from writers such as Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway as a modern contrast to World War I literature. Fact|date=February 2007For similar books on the Great War, it is worth referring to Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man" and Robert Graves' "Good-bye to All That."

Other works by Faulks

* "The Girl at the Lion D'or"
* "A Fool's Alphabet"
* "The Fatal Englishman"
* "Charlotte Gray"
* "On Green Dolphin Street"
* "Human Traces"
* "Engleby"
* "Devil May Care"


External links

* [ "Bloomsbury reading group guide to Birdsong"]

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