Mary Burnet is an orphan raised by her relations the Prescotts of Horton. The family is fond of her, but in the end she is "only Mary". She finds herself drawn to the new curate, Mr Asquith, a poor nondescript man who is considered a bore by everybody else. The first half of this novel follows these two as they fall in love, marry, move away, and encounter many difficulties over the years.
By the time 16 years have passed, the elder Prescotts have died, and Mary has lost touch with her cousins including the eldest son John who would have inherited Horton. She hears that new people are at Horton, an American widow Mrs Rotherham and her little daughter Rhoda. This American lady travels a great deal, and is looking for a companion for her daughter, who lives at Horton with only a governess and the servants; and quite by chance this position is offered to Mary's eldest daughter, 16-year-old Hetty.
The second half of the novel follows Hetty to Horton where she goes through a series of worrying experiences, including seeing a strange man wandering the grounds at night. Hetty becomes more and more fearful, until finally a crisis point is reached. Mary now re-enters the story, as she goes to her daughter at Horton; and it is Mary who will solve the mystery of the strange happenings.
This novel includes a fine depiction of one of Oliphant's many working women, the governess Miss Hoflund.
Biographical and other notes
One of the characters in this novel goes into a catatonic state, or stupor, for several days. (The doctor rules out catalepsy, by which is meant a neurological disorder such as Parkinson's disease.) While this may appear to be nothing more than a plot device, catatonia is and was a real syndrome, often associated with depression or schizophrenia.
Fyi, the Mary Burnet in this story is not related to the Mary Burnet in Ailieford.