Birdsong is a 1993 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, together with The
Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray; the three novels are 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, the stage and television.
Plot 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.
Birdsong has an episodic structure, and is split into seven sections which move
between three different periods of time before, during and after the war. This
is similar in many ways to the structure Faulks adopted in his later novel The
Long White Winter. Throughout Birdsong there are echoes of several war poets
such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
=France 1910=The first stage is set before the war in
Amiens, France. Stephen Wraysford is sent by his wealthy but dispassionate
benefactor to work with René Azaire at his textile factory. He stays with
Azaire and his family. 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 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
along the Tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers 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 badly injured 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.
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
Weir is on leave and finds it impossible to communicate to his family how bad the
war is. After a chance encounter with Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, while on
leave in Amiens, Stephen convinces her to allow him to meet with Isabelle 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 he 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 1978–1979=
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 Stephen and Firebrace being trapped underground
after a German mine explosion; with their way out blocked, they talk and
share their experiences, with Firebrace grieving for his dead son John and
Stephen telling him of his former love for Isabelle. Stephen finds some
explosives and Firebrace, himself close to death, tells him how to lay them in
order to blast their way out of the tunnel. Before Stephen completes the
task, Firebrace dies. The explosion successfully clears a way out for
Stephen, and he is rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier as the war ends.
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 Françoise, who
is surprisingly supportive. Over dinner, she learns her mother was raised by
Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfolk after her grandmother
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, 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.
Characters =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 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 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.=France 1916, 1917 and 1918=
Jack Firebrace – A tunneller or “sewer rat”. He survived until 1918 when he
became trapped while tunnelling and died.
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.
=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. 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. Reception
Birdsong has been said to be Sebastian Faulks’ best work of fiction. It came
13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read, which aimed to find Britain’s
favourite book. 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”. Birdsong was listed in The Telegraph as one of the most
consistently selling books from 1998–2008, continuously in the top 5,000
sales figures. Faulks’ 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
Birdsong was adapted as a radio drama of the same title in 1997, and as a stage
play in 2010. In 2012 it was adapted as a two-part
television drama. The production starred 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 also a feature film adaptation
in the works. The screenplay is by Rupert Wyatt, and the film is expected
to star Nicholas Hoult. References
External links Sebastian Faulks discusses Birdsong on
the BBC World Book Club