THE MESSAGE AFTER the beep tone signals the death of letter writing. Gone are the days of sealing wax and sheets criss-crossed with a fine hand. But A Woman of Independent Means reminds us poignantly of our loss, of how letters have sustained friendships, kept families together, succored loneliness and, most important, provided us with an intimate record of how we live and feel. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's novel is composed entirely of letters and an occasional preremptory cable from Elizabeth Alcott Steed Garner (Bess) to those who filled her life for more than half a century. She begins letter writing in 1899 as a girl of eight, confident of victory in a spelling bee, and continues until her death 10 years ago in a Dallas hospital.

What sets this novel apart is the tremendous workout its anachronistic form gives to the imagination: flexing and stretching forgetten muscles of memory, empathy and insight. The reader stumbles over the spare opening pages and is precipitated by short notes out of the schoolroom into marriage -- Bess' idea -- with a childhood friend, Rob Steed. Then the pace quickens. Between every note, cable or reflective epistle of the small hours lies a complex sequence of events. The reader is allowed - required - to fill in the gaps, to experience each encounter, each decision in exhaustive detail. The author weaves in tiny clues which, with very few exceptions, are undetectable.Every reader must draw upon his own experience to flesh out the world beyond the letters, to figure out passing references, to detect covert anger or anguish. The resulting novel becomes, in part, a reflection of the reader. Gaining the complicity of the audience in this complex process while sustaining the pace and interest is a feat of amazing ingenuity.

Even as the reader is, in this sense, composing his own life of Bess Steed, the firm hand of Elizabeth Hailey is delineating the limits of personality within which the imagination must stay. Bess is tough, almost to the point of ruthlessness. We can usually assume affirmative answers to the requests in her letters. No possibility for dissent is admitted in her clipped, formal paragraphs, and she frequently encloses a check to preclude any further discussion. Bess believes that a well-placed donation or advance payment in full can work her will. And she is rarely wrong.

As a young woman she unexpectedly inherits a substantial sum from her mother, and from the outset the "independent" of the title refers to both her spirit and her bank balance. She knows that power and independence go hand in hand (traditionally male hands) and although Bess has no hesitation in lending her first husband the $20,000 he needs to start his real estate business, lend is the operative word and repayment is expected and obtained.

Bess' strength is the strength of the novel: the sense of change of maturing and then of aging conveyed in her letters is astonishing. The anatomy of lifetime's development is delicately laid out before us, each tiny bone gleaming clean. Bess' love for her first husband Rob survives his death and plays its part in her second marriage to Sam Garner. Undertaken in resignation and for the good of the children, the marriage ripens slowly into a warm and loving relationship, only to decline again as Sam retires from his business into grasping eccentricity and isolation.

Bess' own aging contrasts sharply with Sam's. She scales down her life, exchanges her large house for a luxury highrise apartment, proudly and carefully composes her obituary as a "prominent resident of Dallas," and at Christmas gives grave sites instead of checks to ensure her control over the clan in death as in life. She loses none of her unflinching clarity in old age and realizes bleakly and too late that her successful efforts to control her own children have kept them physically near but have undermined her in their affections. She determines not to perpetuate this mistake with her beloved grandchildren - or as yet unborn great grandchildren - but still wants her name on their monthly checks.

Bess is a formidable woman who compels admiration and affection; a woman who draws up a detailed and practical marriage contract when she marries Sam - in 1922; who uses the same toughness to face premature widowhood and the tragic death of her 10-year-old son Robin. The maturity and poise of the writing, and the courage of the author in demanding compliance and cooperation from her readers, are unexpected and impressive in a first novel. Her second must achieve a daunting standard of excellence to equal it.