A loamy first novel about sexual repression and obsession in rural, mid-Victorian England--which, though it never achieves the Hardyesque grandeur it seems to be striving for, does produce sturdy versions of garden-variety destroyers and victims. Lovely, trusting Rachel is married to severe Esmond Bates, a high-buttoned clergyman whose problematic childhood/youth (a punishing father, the stews of the city) has resulted in an hysterical celibacy: he's determined to protect the purity of wife Rachel from ""vileness."" But, when the couple takes up residence in the remote village of Weatherford (an hommage, no doubt, to Hardy's Wexford), Rachel finds herself confronting the half-gypsy ""stallion master"" Frank Morgan--who earns his way by offering farmers the stud services of his fine stallion Regent. And Morgan is, of course, a personable rogue with a proudly giant sexual appetite, though no ravisher: he supports his illegitimate son (by again-pregnant Dinah Flynn, the tavern mistress' daughter), he pleases his women as well as himself. So Rachel isn't at first in Morgan's thrall: while her contemptuous rector-husband promptly earns the dislike of the rural people (whose antique ways he scorns), she makes the acquaintance of kind young farmer Bashford, who discreetly falls in love with Rachel the woman. Less endearing are the relationships with two other men--for them, Rachel is an object of ungratified desire and self-immolation. And eventually Rachel senses the first focused awakening of sexual desire in Morgan's exhibitionistic virility. Throughout, the villagers--from sly, matronly snoops to timid stutterers--are tough, clannish, and outspoken, using a country dialogue that rings true (though it's blessedly free of phonetically-transcribed dialect). There will be: an abduction, an attempted rape, a mob beating, Bates' madness, and two violent deaths. . . before Rachel looks to the future with a promise of love. So, though this is often just gossipy period-drama with pretensions, it's usually engrossing and quietly steamy.