In the novel The Sea, The Sea (1978), immediately preceding Nuns and Soldiers, it could be seen that Murdoch was determined to extend her range by deepening the emotional and intellectual context of her work. That move to meet the criticism that she used serious ideas superficially was clearly continued in this, her twentieth novel. Nuns and Soldiers is less comedic than many of her works, and the exercises in deep feeling and tenderness are often constructed with some care and considerable leisure. It is true that Murdoch still tends to slip (sometimes almost wallow) in language that reminds critics of cheap fiction. Tears that “spurt” from the eyes suggest that in her determination to explore feeling fully and at length, her language sometimes breaks down; fineness of emotional expression is not one of her strengths. She is, however, very successful in her descriptions of nature; the landscape surrounding the French house carries thematic, symbolic, and tonal responsibilities as well as its own spontaneous vivacity as a natural phenomenon without any feeling of being overblown or pretentious.
So many of Murdoch’s novels are set in the city of London that it can be forgotten just how successful she is in evoking the countryside in her work. This novel, though strongly tied to the city and an accurate rendering of certain parts of the city (Tim and Daisy’s north Soho is absolutely true to the reality of that slightly seedy part of central London), goes into the countryside with great success. Murdoch’s smart themes and fashionable characters doing peculiar things, often outside the realm of normal life, should not become so central to a reading of this novel that her skill in the description of nature is ignored. She has a splendid, romantic eye for the beauties of nature and a strongly dramatic sense of its power. The sea in Cumbria and the great stone interfaces and labyrinths in France are more than symbolic backdrops or tonal sounding boards; they exist in and of themselves as pure aesthetic experiences. The set piece in nature, put together with the technical care of a painter (one of the themes of this novel) is a part of her repertoire which occasionally approaches poetry. Less tricky than earlier works, and tonally more unified, Nuns and Soldiers is a good example of the more serious Murdoch novel.