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Have you ever had to fight in a war? Many of us have been lucky enough not to have experienced life as a soldier, so books like Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks are important reminders of the horrors of warfare. In Birdsong, Faulks explores the traumatic, trans-generational effects of WW1 on soldiers and their families.

Birdsong: Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks was the youngest son born to Peter and Pamela Faulks in Donnington, Berkshire on April 20, 1953. He has one older brother, barrister Edward Faulks, who was made a life peer in 2010. His father, Peter, fought with a Yorkshire Regiment, the Duke of Wellington’s, in WW2. His maternal grandfather, Philip Lawless, fought in WW1 and was killed in WW2 while reporting on the American advance into Germany.

A 'life peer' refers to the Life Peerages Act that grants peers the right to sit in the House of Lords. The title of life peer is earned and not inherited.

As a child, Faulks attended Elstree School before moving on to Wellington College, where he was the top scholar in 1966. In 1970, he entered an open competition and won a place to read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1974.

Faulks’ early literary career was spent writing books on weekends while teaching and then working for publications like the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, and The Spectator. These books remain largely unpublished. His first completed book, A Trick of The Light was published in 1984.

In 1989, Faulks published The Girl at the Lion d’Or, while working at the Independent. The novel was a critical success but only a very moderate commercial one, so he stayed on at the Independent, becoming Deputy Editor. In the same year, he married editor, Veronica Youlten. They have three children, William (1990), Holly (1992), and Arthur (1996).

Faulks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993, shortly before publishing his breakthrough book, Birdsong in 1994. The book achieved critical acclaim and commercial success. This commercial success allowed him to quit his day job and focus on writing full time. Birdsong is part of a trilogy, linked by some minor characters and eras in history. The 'France Trilogy' includes The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray (1998).

In 2002 Faulks was awarded a CBE for his services to literature.

Birdsong has been made into a radio drama (1997), play (2010) and a BBC series (2012). There are also plans for a feature film with a screenplay by Rupert Wyatt.

Charlotte Gray was made into a 2001 Hollywood feature film, starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Birdsong book: summary

Birdsong begins in 1910 by introducing the protagonist, Stephen Wraysford. He is a young Englishman on assignment for a textile factory in Amiens, France. He is a lodger in the home of Rene and Isabelle Azier, an unhappily married couple. Stephen and Isabelle, an abused wife, progressively fall in love. After eloping to Provence, Isabelle becomes pregnant and for reasons not mentioned at the time, chooses to leave Stephen.

The novel then jumps forward to 1916 where Stephen is an infantryman in WW1, based in Flanders. The narrative introduces Stephen’s relationships with his commanding officer, Captain Gray, an engineer Michael Weir, and a tunneller named Jack Firebrace. Faulks goes into the details of these men’s lives to depict the horrors of tunnels, gas and enduring the daily prospect of death. The close bonds that the men form under these extreme conditions are also revealed.

Faulks portrays the Battle of Somme through Stephen’s lived experience, from dawn and its pre-battle anxiety to dusk and the day's 60,000 British casualties. Stephen, almost defeated by the realities of war, is encouraged to fight for survival by the stoic Captain Gray. He also keeps a coded journal as a way to document his experiences.

Birdsong then picks up the parallel narrative around Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter who finds his coded wartime journals in the late 1970s. She manages to decode them, leading her to track down Gray and other men who fought in the war with her grandfather. Elizabeth, like her grandfather, is having an extra-marital affair.

Switching back to 1917 again, Stephen briefly reconnects with Isabelle and meets her sister Jeanne, who is supportive of him. He and Isabelle do not ever become involved again. In 1918, Jack Firebrace and Stephen are trapped underground when an explosion collapses the roof of their tunnel. Jack dies as a result of his wounds after Stephen promises to name his son after Jack’s son, John, who died in London. A Jewish-German doctor looking for his brother rescues Stephen several days later. The war ends and Stephen survives. Later he marries Jeanne and they raise Francoise, his daughter with Isabelle.

In the last scenes of the book, set in 1979, Elizabeth gives birth to a son and names him John to fulfil the promise her grandfather made in a collapsed tunnel in 1918.

Consider what Faulks represents in each narrative. What are the links between Stephen and Elizabeth? Why is Stephen's story important in 1979?

Birdsong: characters

The main protagonist in the novel is Stephen Wraysford but his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson is a key character in the parallel, more modern narrative.

Stephen Wraysford

Stephen is an anti-hero in that he is flawed and fallible. He elopes with another man’s wife, he is often harsh with the men under his command and he marries the sister of the woman whom he still loves. He also has many good qualities, evident in his will to survive despite the horrific conditions of war and his treatment of the dying Jack. He is a multi-faceted character, who kept a coded journal to record his experience but never spoke about the war.

Isabelle Azaire

Stephen’s love interest throughout the book, Isabelle is the unhappy and abused wife of Rene Azaire. Although she loves Stephen, she does not tell him about the pregnancy and leaves him to return to her sister, Jeanne. After then returning to Rene, she later raises their daughter, Francoise with a German soldier named Max. Shortly after the war, she dies of influenza. Stephen and her sister, Jeanne then raise Francoise.

Elizabeth Benson

Francoise’s daughter discovers her grandfather's coded journal and seeks out his wartime friends. Elizabeth is having an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant. She names her son, John, after Jack the tunneller’s son, who died in London.

Birdsong book: analysis

Birdsong is a book about the horror of war, particularly trench warfare. During WW1, due to advances in technology and armory, the face of war was changed forever. Tanks, submachine guns, advanced chemical warfare, and wireless communications were used for the first time. Thousands of men died in trenches for each mile of ground gained. Faulks seeks to remind the modern world what war is like and how the trauma it creates echo through the next generations.

Birdsong analysis: the theme of war

This section investigates the theme of war presented in Birdsong.

No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living, and we will not tell them. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us." 1

Stephen, Birdsong’s protagonist keeps a journal, enabling his lived experience to be more fully understood by following generations. Faulks uses Birdsong, especially the character of Elizabeth, to create a modern narrative for those who did not get to document their stories.

Birdsong, world war one soldiers in the trenches looking towards the camera, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Birdsong highlights the horrors of trench warfare.

Chemical warfare is the use of poisonous gases and chemicals. In WW1, these chemicals included Phosgene and Mustard Gas. Although the use of chemical warfare was originally outlawed in the Strasbourg Agreement of 1675 and in several treaties such as the Geneva Protocol (1925), it is still in use today.

Birdsong analysis: themes of forbidden love and familial love

As much as Birdsong is a novel about the tragedy of war, it is also a love story. Stephen’s forbidden love for the married Isabelle stays with him throughout the book, even into his marriage to her sister. His granddaughter, Elizabeth is also having an affair with a married man.

Stephen raising Isabelle’s daughter, Francoise with his wife, Jeanne, reflects familial love. In addition, his grandaughter’s interest in her almost unknown grandfather leads her to learn more about his life and so come to love or understand him enough to name her son, John to keep his promise.

Birdsong: the theme of hope

Birds are a constant and ambiguous theme in the novel, Birdsong. In a key example, on the battlefield birdsong could still be heard when the gunfire died down, indicating the power of hope in times of disaster and destruction.

Birdsong - Key takeaways

  • Birdsong is a book written by Sebastian Faulks in 1994.
  • The book has two parallel narratives set during the build-up to and WW1 and the late 1970s.
  • The main protagonist is Stephen Wraysford, who falls in love with a married woman and fights in WW1.
  • His granddaughter Elizabeth Benson is the key character in the later 1970s narrative.
  • Stephen kept a coded journal that leads Elizabeth to learn more about his lived experience of war.
  • Birdsong is a book about war, forbidden, and familial love and hope. It is a reminder to the modern world about the true cost and lasting impact of war.

1. Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong, Hutchinson, 1993.

Frequently Asked Questions about Birdsong

Birdsong is Sebastian Faulks' fourth book.

It is called Birdsong for a few reasons. The sound of birdsong was said to still be heard when the noise of the guns died down. This is used to represent hope in the novel.

Birdsong could also be a metaphor for the voice of a lost generation, whose experiences Faulkes seeks to represent in his book.

The main characters in Birdsong are Stephen Wraysford and Elizabeth Benson.

Yes, Birdsong is part of a loose trilogy that is linked by several minor characters and history. 

The other novels in the trilogy are The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray.

There are two narratives in Birdsong. The Stephen Wraysford narrative can be said to have a happy ending as he survives the war.

The Elizabeth narrative can also be said to have a happy ending of sorts, as she names her son to complete her grandfather's promise.

Final Birdsong Quiz


Who wrote Birdsong?

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Sebastian Faulkes wrote Birdsong in 1993.

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What is a unique feature of the narrative in Birdsong?

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It has a parallel narrative set in different eras.

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What are the other two books that form a trilogy with Birdsong?

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The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989) and Charlotte Gray (1998).

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Who is the protagonist in Birdsong?

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Stephen Wraysford.

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What are some key themes in Birdsong?

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War, love and hope.

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What does trans-generational mean in the context of Birdsong?

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Faulkes depicts how the effects of war are trans - generational in that the traumas echo through the next generations.

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Who is Stephen's granddaughter?

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Elizabeth Benson.

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What message does the book, Birdsong relay?

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Faulkes uses the story of Stephen to give a voice to the lost generation of WW1 and warn the modern generations of the horror of war.

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What types of love are depicted in Birdsong?

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Familial love and forbidden love.

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What does Elizabeth do in 1979 to complete her grandfather's promise made in 1918.

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She names her son, John, after Jack's son who died. Her grandfather, Stephen had promised Jack that he would do this but he did not have a son, so could not fulfill his promise.

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