Birdsong (novel): Wikis


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First UK edition cover
Author Sebastian Faulks
Country  United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Fiction
War novel
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date September 16, 1993 (UK)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 407 pp
ISBN ISBN 0091773733

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. [1]

The novel came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read which aimed to find Britain's favourite book.[2]



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). Birdsong has been one of the most consistent selling books of the last decade, continuously in the top 5,000 sales figures [3].

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.


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.
Throughout the novel there are echos of several war poets such as; Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (1918)


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 textile 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 Élise 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 as she finds out she is pregnant and doesn’t know how Stephen will react. 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 later in the novel goes on to raise her child (a girl called Françoise) 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 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 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. Stephen refuses all offers of leave; so committed is he to fighting and staying involved with the war.

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 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 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 Stephen's pregnant 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 with 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. 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 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; 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". 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 died fighting for Germany in the First World War.[4]

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 Dorset, UK. 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.


Front cover of Birdsong as published by Vintage in 2007
  • 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." Weir 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.
  • Margeurete - 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.

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.[5] 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.[6]

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?" [7].

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).

Other works by Faulks


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Birdsong (1993) is a novel by Sebastian Faulks focusing on the experiences of solider Stephen Wraysford while serving on the Western Front in World War I.


Citations are from the 1994 Vintage paperback, ISBN 0-09-938791-3, which is no longer in print.

  • Jack already immune to death, let their white faces drift from his memory
    • p. 125
  • It is as though you stop living. Your mind goes dead
    • p. 136
  • He spoke no French and viewed all buildings, fields and churches as profoundly alien
    • p. 141
  • He blamed the NCOs, who blamed the officers; they swore at the staff officers who blamed the Generals
    • p. 141
  • He depended on the resilience of certain men to nerve himself to his unnatural life
    • p. 142
  • Perhaps in some way he did not understand, that was what the two officers had been doing: perhaps all that talk about life-drawing was just a way of pretending everything was normal
    • p. 142
  • This is not a war. It is an exploration of how far men can be degraded
    • p. 150
  • Although he had little idea of time, the burned images of the preceding days lived in his memory with static clarity
    • p. 157
  • What had taken place beneath that placid irregular roof seemed to belong to a world as peculiar and abnormal as the one in which he now lived
    • p. 158
  • Stephen was moved by the thought of his fellow countrymen fighting this foreign war
    • p. 161
  • I don’t value my life enough
    • p. 164
  • But their breathing and their hearts worked as though one body
    • p. 168
  • He was surprised by his own brutality, he assumed that it was caused by fear
    • p. 172
  • The empty expressions that filled so many letters home did not seem to describe the part that Stephen had played in his life
    • p. 184
  • Stephen was appalled by the idea of being separated from the men he had fought with. He despised the war, but could not leave until he had seen it through until the end
    • p. 190
  • He wanted to answer them with steel and explosives, with metal tearing into soft tissue and spinning on the bone. When the war was over there would be a place for contemplation, even generosity, but in the meantime he treasured his hatred as a means of saving his own life and those of his men
    • p. 197
  • The place from which the boy had came was not just a better place but a better world
    • p. 198
  • They were breaking free into the darkness of normality, with food and drink, the sound of women and the sight of men whose first thought would not be to kill them
    • p. 201
  • There was only violent death or life to chose between; finer distinctions such as love, preference or kindness were redundant
    • p. 203
  • And a recent one [food parcel] addressed to Wilkinson, some weeks dead had been a cause of particular celebration
    • p. 212
  • For a moment he was baffled. It seemed to have no agricultural purpose, there was no planting or ploughing to be done. Then he realised, they were digging a mass grave
    • p. 215
  • Any man shirking his duty would be shot on the spot
    • p. 216
  • Poor Fritz. He must be mad by now under those guns
    • p. 218
  • Non-believers finding faith in fear
    • p. 219
  • Once more in ragged suicidal line. They trudged towards the pattering death of mounted guns
    • p. 232
  • Still, the more sardonic they became, the more he cared for them. Still he could not quite believe them, he could not comprehend the lengths to which they allowed themselves to be driven
    • p. 282
  • I was there. I swathe great void in your soul, and you saw mine
    • p. 341
  • If they could shout loud enough they might bring the world back to it’s senses, they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead
    • p. 344
  • I feel guilty that I have survived when all the others are gone
    • p. 390
  • Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking
    • p. 421
  • No child or future generation will know what this was like
    • p. 422
  • His own [childhood] seemed so long ago that it was as is someone had lived it for him
    • p. 425
  • He could remember this compassion but he no longer felt it
    • p. 440
  • There would be some decorum in their dying beneath the country they had fought so long to protect
    • p. 449
  • There was a perverse appeal in the thought he could complete what no enemy had managed
    • p. 450
  • We’ve all gone now. The whole of our little group
    • p. 455
  • They mocked him for still being alive
    • p. 455
  • It made him laugh, mad-eyed and bearded, like a hermit in his cave
    • p. 464


  • Some slumped as though dead on the floor of the trench
  • They were frightening to the civilians because they had evolved not into killers but into passive beings whose aim was to endure
  • They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal
  • He noticed how dry and passionless his own style had become
    • Stephen refering to letters informing relatives of death
  • Now he would take life without compunction
  • He hated the selfishness of his feeling because he felt more sorry for himself than his dead friend
  • You can’t give tin stars to people when there are men that give their life
  • Depression had begun to sink into the army’s bones

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