First UK edition cover
|Publication date||September 16, 1993 (UK)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
Birdsong is a 1993 war novel by 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. It has also been adapted three times under the same title – for radio (1997), the stage (2010) and television (2012).
Birdsong has been said to be 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). Birdsong has been one of the most consistently selling books of the last decade, continuously in the top 5,000 sales figures.
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 likened to the work of writers such as Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway, providing a modern contrast to World War I literature.
While most 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. This is similar in many ways to the structure Faulks would adopt in his later novel The Long White Winter.
France 1910 
The first stage is set before the war in Amiens, France. Stephen Wraysford is sent by his wealthy but disempassioned benefactor to work with René Azaire at his textile factory. He stays with Azaire and his family (Isabelle, Lisette and Grégoire). He spends the early part of the novel experiencing the comforts of middle class life in industrial Northern France whilst around him Azaire's workers foment unrest and threaten strike. He also senses an unease in the relationship between Azaire and Isabelle and is curious about her. Their friends, Bérard, Madame Bérard and Aunt Élise come round for dinner on occasions but there is always distance between them and Isabelle.
It is revealed that Isabelle is substantially younger than Azaire and is his second wife. Azaire is embarrassed by his inability to father a child with her and beats her in erotic-consolatory anger. Lisette, the child of Azaire’s first marriage, who is 16 years old, makes suggestive remarks to Stephen but Stephen does not reciprocate.
Lucien Lebrun, one of Azaire’s workers, gives food to the families of workers which he gets from Isabelle. This occurs behind Azaire's back and a rumour stirs that they are having an affair.
Realising that their lives have been similar battles for self-determination which have now crossed, Stephen and Isabelle engage in a passionate affair which they believe is 'right' and will last forever. Isabelle confronts Azaire with the truth and he evicts Stephen, telling him that he will go to hell. Stephen and Isabelle run away but Isabelle, finding she is pregnant, momentarily loses faith in the relationship. Without telling Stephen, she flees, returning to her family home and the one constant in her life - her sister Jeanne. Later, Isabelle’s father makes a deal with Azaire for her return in exchange for her maintained honour; Isabelle is forgiven but soon realises her mistake. Stephen hears no more of her and knows nothing of his child that she bears (a girl called Françoise) and later raises 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 the reader about the First Day on the Somme in July 1916 and the Battle of Messines near 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 Stephen'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. He refuses all offers of leave; so committed is he to fighting and staying involved with the war.
His story is paralleled to 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 deceased 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 attack 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 should 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 confesses 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 Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who, whilst struggling with her married boyfriend, Robert, unearths the stories of World War I and the remaining links to Stephen'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 Isabelle after meeting with Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, and convincing her to let him, and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell with scarring caused from the injury. Stephen discovers that Isabelle is now in a relationship with Max, a German soldier.
Stephen is able to return to England and feels relief at being able to enjoy the Norfolk countryside away from the trenches.
When Stephen meets Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, he 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 out of the front line.
England 78-79 
Elizabeth continues researching the war and talks to war veterans (Gray and Brennan) about their experiences. During this period, she also becomes pregnant with Robert's child.
France 1918 
The novel ends with Wraysford and Firebrace being trapped underground; Firebrace dies but Stephen survives and as the war ends he is rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier. An ending which is clearly inspired by – and deliberately echoes – Wilfred Owen's 1918 poem "Strange Meeting".
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 Norfolk, after Isabelle’s premature death due to the postwar influenza epidemic. Elizabeth and Robert then go on holiday to Dorset where 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.
The book ends with Robert walking down the garden of the holiday cottage and having an immense sense of joy.
- 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." Stephen 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, never having fully got 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. Eventually married Lucien Lebrun.
- 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 Élise - Madame Bérard's mother.
- Marguerite - A maid employed by the Azaire household.
- Lucien Lebrun - A man who gives food to dyer's families that he gets from Isabelle. Later noted as having married Lisette Azaire.
- Meyraux - A supporter of a strike at René's factory.
France 1916, 1917 and 1918 
- Jack Firebrace - A tunneller or "sewer-rat". He survived until 1918 when he became trapped while tunnelling 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, Ellis and Colonel Barclay.
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 with whom Elizabeth has an affair. Robert states that he will eventually leave his wife but is reluctant to do so. Has one child from this marriage.
- Stuart - A man with whom Elizabeth has a brief romance. 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.
Birdsong is a two-part 2012 television drama, based on the 1993 war novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. It stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Wraysford and Clémence Poésy as Isabelle Azaire and was directed by Philip Martin based on a screenplay by Abi Morgan. 
There is a film adaptation in the working. The screenplay is written by Rupert Wyatt based on Faulks’ book and will shoot later this year with a fall 2014 delivery date planned. Nicholas Hoult, the star of zombie rom com Warm Bodies and Jack the Giant Slayer, has signed to star in the big-screen adaptation. Hoult will play the role of Stephen Wraysford. 
- "Bloomsbury Publishing". Bloomsbury.com. Retrieved 2010-12-12.[dead link]
- "The Big Read - Top 100 Books". BBC. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "The 12 top titles that booksellers must always stock". Telegraph. 2008-08-08. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
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