WESTERN popular fiction has a long history of strong, somewhat eccentric heroines. Ever since Erastus Beadle came out with the first of his Dime Novels in 1860, a characteristic feature of the western heroine has been her ability to outdo men at their own. pastimes, including riding, shooting, and holding up. trains. Belle Starr (the Bandit Queen), Hurricane Nell, Calamity Jane: the names themselves evoke a sense of high-hearted independence.

Standing at the opposite end of the spectrum of mass-market fiction in its characterization of women is the romance novel. Romance novels are essentially expanded confession stories revolving loosely (sometimes very loosely) around the old formula of "sin, suffer, and repent." Their heroines are anything but strong and independent. Though nowadays they may sometimes start their own businesses, drive trucks, or indulge in sex for sex's sake, they always seem to wind up doing something wrong in the process, something for which they must ultimately suffer and repent.

This difference in the way romance and much western fiction portray their heroines is clear and well defined, and it is herefore curious that the publishers of mass-market paperbacks are now naking a push to combine the two forms -- to transplant the romance novel to a 19th-century western setting. The effort is of course not without precedent, but the number of what might be called "western historical romance novels" now being readied for book racks across the country is nonetheless impressive. The obvious questions to ponder are: how will the confession formula fare in its new milieu? Will heartache and repentance succeed in taming the western heroine? These three novels, chosen as representative, seem to offer different answers.

Independence and Storm of Desire suggest, in different ways, that the western heroine will not thrive in her new element. Independence is the first part of a four-volume series, called "Wagons west," chronicling the journey by wagon train of settlers to the Oregon Tettitory. The development of the female (and male) characters adheres strictly, uninspiringly, to the confession formula and there is consequently little room for the eccentric western heroine. Though one of the women wears men's clothing and rides and shoots "like a man" -- a common device of Beadle's writers -- her skills are so condescendingly described, and her preoccupation with her own heartache so total, that her character is largely "emasculated." Even as romance, this book is pretty tame stuff, with less sex in its more than 400 pages than in one story in True Confessions . The book is, in sum, a kind of fervid romance for the family. One might suppose its "real appeal" to be historical, yet there is little history in it that is plausible and much that is inaccurate. Andrew Jackson is quoted, in all seriousness, as saying about the Indians, "we mean them no harm" while historical personages come and fo at dates given in the novel when they were in fact dead.

Storm of Desire falls even more definitely than does Independence into the category of a traditional romance novel; the western setting is almost wholly superfluous and the heroine is identical in every way to those of the confession stories. The novel's preoccupation with sex is accordingly explicit and all-consuming. In the first paragraph, we are introduced to 18 year-old Reesa Flower's "full breasts and well-rounded dettiere" and by the end of the book we get to know them quite well, not to mention the several male appendages they encounter. Interestingly, the book is a small cut above Independence in historical accuracy. The story of the building of a railroad across the Southwestern United States, Storm of Desire contains references here and there to the practices of land speculators, the Credit Mobilier scheme, etc. The denouement of the book, however, in which the railroad gives its land away too poor Mexican farmers, is not exactly the height of realism.

Traitor in my Arms , unlike the previous pair, is extremely, astonishingly, well researched. Comanche Indian life, Texas politics before and after statehood, life in Chicago in the 1850s: all these are woven into the plot in a skillful and informative way. But what really puts the book in a different class from the other two is the inspired treatment of its heroine. The book opens with its part-Comanche, part-white heroine robbing a train and ends with her robbing a stagecoach, while in between she manages to justify the description Belle Starr once gave of herself as a "woman who has seen much of life." She is also a woman who, like Belle Starr, does not spend an excessive amount of time grieving over former lovers. When her rich, white, and innocent husband is sent to jail for 25 years, she merely returns contentedly to the life of robbing stagecoaches which her marriage had interrupted. When next she sees him, after he has managed to get out of prison, she nearly shoots him in the chest with her Colt. 44 because she thinks (mistakenly) that he has killed an old Indian lover of hers.

The book ends, of course, as all romance novels do, but not before author Vivian Lord, in order to accomodate her "bandit queen" heroine, has stretched the usual formula to its limit. Other authors of "western historical romance novels" would do well to follow her lead.