IT WAS WITH A certain hesitation that I picked up Rhoda Lerman's Eleanor , fearing to find another one of those novels that rather pointlessly and pretentiously attempts to erase the lines between fantasy and reality by placing an historical figure in a totally fictional, often outlandish situation. Instead I found a straightforward, meticulously researched, beautifully written novel that brings Eleanor Roosevelt to life in a way that even her biographers have not.

I know some readers will protest that it cannot be so: a novel is by definition a fiction, i.e., not true, a distortion of reality. Lerman, author of two well-received novels (Call Me Ishtar and The Girl That He Marries ) did in fact set out to write a conventional biography. A founder of Val-Kill, Inc., the foundation that maintains Eleanor Roosevelt's home as an historic landmark, Lerman had the cooperation of Curtis Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt's grandson, and of other family members and friends, and thus had access to her papers. During the time she was researching the book, Lerman wrote the script for a film called Soul of Iron , in which the actress Jean Stapleton speaks the words of Mrs. Roosevelt as written by Lerman. It was the creation of the voice in the film, Lerman says in her acknowledgments, that changed her mind about what she wanted to do and "gave me the confidence to write this book in Eleanor Roosevelt's voice."

One problem with conventional biography is that in its preoccupation with facts, its attempt to record every known detail about an entire life, it sometimes loses sight of what Henry James' biographer, Leon Edel, has called "the figue in the carpet," the personal myth that reveals character, which contains the meaning of that life. Lerman has wisely limited her novel to three crucial years in Eleanor Roosevelt's life: the period between the summer of 1918 when Eleanor discovers FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer and the summer of 1921 when FDR contracts polio. Basing her narrative on the facts of Eleanor Roosevelt's life during that period, Lerman's use of the first-person narrator allows her to imagine the inner reality of that life, and so great is Lerman's empathy and understanding for Eleanor that the character which emerges from her imagination is totally believable, totally human. If the thoughts and events that Lerman records did not actually happen, they grow so naturally out of character and situation that the reader nevertheless believes they should have happened that way.

Much of the strength of the novel lies in the fact that Lerman's Eleanor is no saint. When we first meet her, she is bored and unhappy, resentful of the constraints of her life, longing for something she doesn't quite yet understand. She fears the madness that has plagued her family, and she whines and worries and feels sorry for herself: "'In the thirteen years with Franklin I have found marriage to be that rare institution in which, in order to survive, one must become a victim.'" Prudishly, and ignorantly, she ties her daughter's hands to her crib each night to keep her from masturbating because, as she tells a horrified Franklin, "'The newest medical texts say masturbation is a condition of, contiguous to, insanity.'" Ever earnest, she is unable to relax and enjoy her husband or children or friends. "'Can't we just have some fun, Babs?'" Franklin asks. Later he tells her, "'I'll not live under the tyranny of your self-pity; you're becoming an emotional tyrant around here, wallowing in the drama of your childhood.'" True to her background, Eleanor is also something of a snob and a bigot: though she admires Bernard Baruch, she refuses an invitation to meet his wife and family, thinking, "It was such a shame Mr. Baruch was a Jew."

What saves her is her unflinching honesty, her growing realization that she alone is responsible for herself, that she must move beyond her dependence on Franklin, that she must free herself. Offering her a translation of Agricola, her friend Henry Adams tells her, "'See here, "After great forest fires, . . . the silver runs from the blackened forest in three streams. Shining streams. From the lead." You see, Eleanor, you must endure the holocaust. Lead is very important. You are a lead person. Via longissima . . . the longest way.'"

And little by little, in the longest way, silver is freed from lead, as she gains confidence in her ability to survive, in her own intelligence and perceptions. Stunned by the sight of Europe after the Armistice, bone and flesh floating in the cesspool of the trenches, she suffers a "forest fire," a horrible realization of mortality: "Nothing endures. Nothing is fixed . . . You also, Eleanor, You also. Each and every one of you. It was at Richebourg, close to the line and there was no line at all." It is the turning point that will enable her eventually to see beyond herself, to "surrender safety to change," to transform the tragedy of her marriage and her husband's illness.

This is a beautiful novel, elegantly written, true as anything could be. Like her heroine, Rhoda Lerman has surrendered safety and taken great risks in writing it; after reading it, I'm sure the Eleanor Roosevelt would approve. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Mark Alan Stamaty for The Washington Post