A fine-grained, intelligently peopled first novel about domestic life and romance in rural Victorian England with, here, a hortatory focus on the injustices of the period's double standards in caste and sex. Into the village of Bradford Abbas comes the new young vicar, Richard Webster, kind and just, whose ""every button breathed reliability."" He's welcomed heartily by elegant Samuel Delaford, son and heir of a prosperous gentleman farmer--and whose love of women is surpassed only by a devotion to the land. Content with life's blessings, Samuel is not too hard on himself for seducing decorous, religious Rachel, daughter of a Delaford laborer, and siring her child. It is the gentle vicar who, to Samuel's anger and amazement, takes the moral high road, and prepares the way for the union of a bitter, disillusioned Rachel and chastened Samuel. in the meantime, vicar Richard has married lovely Laura, Samuel's sister, whose love for the husband whom she has married without love, will grow in spite of a terror of childbirth; she will barely survive the delivery of twins by a slovenly doctor. (Enlightened Richard, acutely aware of women's suffering, particularly among the poor, approves of then-illegal contraceptive information.) The gradual, often painful accommodations of the two couples is the crux of the novel in which family and villagers eddy around griefs and exhilarations, remorse and revelations. With luxuriant village, field and parlor detail, an attractively narrated tale of prides, plows and passions in a 19th-century Dorset village.