Nuns and Soldiers

by Iris Murdoch

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

Guy Openshaw, an administrator in the British Home Office, lies dying in his luxurious Ebury Street flat. A coterie of friends and relatives drops in frequently to console his wife, Gertrude. One evening Gertrude receives a call from Anne Cavidge, once her best friend at Cambridge, who for fifteen years was a cloistered nun. Anne leaves the order and returns to the world. Gertrude invites Anne to stay with her at Ebury Street. Guy dies after telling Gertrude that she might consider the Count for her next husband. In her terrible grief Gertrude elicits Anne’s promise to stay with her forever. The Count pays a condolence call, and the two women realize that he is in love with Gertrude.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of young Tim Reede and Daisy Barrett, longtime friends and lovers, deteriorate. Guy, who once administered a small trust for Tim, used to give him handouts occasionally. At Daisy’s urging Tim goes to Gertrude to ask for money. Gertrude, trying to be helpful as Guy would wish, offers Tim a job repairing her house in France. Tim, overjoyed, accepts the offer and makes secret plans to have Daisy join him. He finds the house in a beautiful valley crossed by streams and mysterious stone formations. One day he returns from hiking to find that Gertrude has arrived to facilitate the sale of her house. Tim pursues his painting, and Gertrude tries to take care of business. They explore the countryside together and in one night Tim and Gertrude fall passionately in love. Gertrude insists they must marry, and Tim, overwhelmed by events, neglects to tell Gertrude about Daisy. A few days later, Gertrude’s relatives arrive to whisk her home to London.

Tim rushes back to England and tells Daisy he is going to marry Gertrude. Daisy insists it can be only for money, and when Tim denies this, she throws him out in a rage. Gertrude rushes to Tim’s shabby studio and declares they must keep the relationship secret until her mourning for Guy ends. Meanwhile, the Count receives an anonymous letter, which he shares with Anne, saying that Gertrude is having a love affair with Tim. Confronted by Anne, Gertrude admits the truth; Anne, horrified and jealous, tries to talk her out of continuing the affair.

Anne moves out of Gertrude’s home and Tim moves in. Soon Gertrude, unnerved by Anne’s bitter words and confused by her secret double life, tells Tim they will have to part and resume their relationship later. Terribly hurt, Tim leaves and goes to Daisy’s flat, where they resume their affair. After a few days, he finds living with Daisy intolerable and moves into a hotel, where he longs for Gertrude. She resumes life with old friends and relatives but thinks obsessively of Tim. When they meet accidentally in the British Museum, they are overcome with happiness and marry soon afterward.

Anne falls in love with the Count, who visits her flat frequently to salve his wounded feelings over Gertrude’s marriage. One day he arrives agitated, having heard that Tim has a mistress never mentioned to Gertrude. Worse yet, the Count hears that Tim and the mistress plot for Tim to marry wealth and continue to keep the mistress. Anne, who never liked Tim, visits Daisy and asks her about the gossip. Angry, Daisy says it is true and throws her visitor out. Anne tells Gertrude of her discoveries, and Gertrude asks Tim about Daisy. Tim, embarrassed and confused, admits it is true but that they only joked about a rich marriage. Furious, Gertrude leaves, after ordering Tim to be gone when she returns.

Tim despairs, believing his life with Gertrude is over. He withdraws money from his and Gertrude’s account and goes to Daisy’s flat. As he enters, he sees Anne at the street corner spying on him. Anne moves back to Ebury Street and tries to soothe and comfort Gertrude. Gertrude lets herself be comforted but rages inwardly with pain and jealousy. Tim, suffering intense guilt, gives up hope of reconciliation and continues his tormented life with Daisy.

Gertrude, Anne, and the Count go to Gertrude’s house in France for a holiday, where the Count again hopes for a chance with Gertrude. In London, Tim and Daisy come to an understanding that their dissolute lives are not good for either of them, and they part permanently. Tim is reconciled to his solitary life although he thinks constantly of Gertrude. One day a letter from a mutual friend arrives, saying that Gertrude is at her house in France and probably needs and wants him back.

Tim sets out immediately for France. He approaches the house from the valley and sees Gertrude holding hands with the Count. He flees but falls into a canal that sweeps him through a drainage pipe. He thinks he will die until he lands on a sandy shore. Battered, tired, and hungry, Tim creeps back to the house, where Gertrude welcomes him joyfully into her arms. Anne finally realizes that Gertrude’s happiness depended upon him. She snatches the astonished Count off to the village, leaving husband and wife alone for a blissful reconciliation.

Tim and Gertrude return to London anticipating years of happiness. Gertrude, sorry for the Count’s disappointment, declares her new life will include him, and he is comforted. Anne goes off to America.

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