THE SIX VOLUMES of The Lisle Letters have hit the public scene with an extraordinary splash: every major newspaper in the country is reviewing them; the Smithsonian has a long article about their editor; and the University of Chicago Press has spent immense sums to advertise them. So why the fanfare? Library shelves are already collapsing under the weight of multi-volume collections, and the nation's university presses are grinding out the correspondence of important people with depressing and expensive regularity -- the Woodrow Wilson papers, the Benjamin Franklin papers, and, just recently completed, the Horace Walpole letters. In an era of sophisticated information retrieval systems and skyrocketing printing costs, one wonders why vast collections simply are not calendared, indexed and microfilmed for the benefit of scholarly research. As for the Lisle letters, they were, in fact, calendared 85 years ago.

So why the need to publish in full two-thirds of the papers of an obscure 16th-century English nobleman, his wife and their London agent? They scarcely constitute great literature and only cover the seven years between 1533 and 1540. And why has the enterprise taken so long? The editor, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, began her labors almost a half century ago in 1932, and since that date her project has grown from an estimated three volumes to the present six.

The answer is that The Lisle Letters bear a deceptive title, for the 1,677 documents themselves compose only about one-half of the 4,000 pages and 2 million words; the remainder is Miss St. Clare Byrne's voluminous editorial comments. The combination is a new kind of historical production -- docu-history -- in which the voice of the past speaks in concert with the imagination of the living, producing a duet between the living editor and the records of the dead. What has been attempted is probably the most intimate, human and detailed reconstruction of any seven year period in history, a resurrection in which the rhythm of living and speaking is as important as the dramas and tragedies involved in the English Reformation, the forging of the nation state, and the convulsions and agonies surrounding Henry VIII's married life. As the editor says, historians can rebuild the houses of the past, furnish the rooms, store the larders, and lay out the garments, but they cannot "persuade the past to send back one individual ghost" unless the "unbelievable dailyness of life" is recreated and cast up against conventional history, the kind that is found in textbooks, monographs and biographies of the great and mighty.

There are not many editors who could have achieved such a marriage of documents and historical editorializing, and possibly the fact that Miss St. Clare Byrne is not a trained historian accounts for the success. She is a literary scholar, a one-time close friend of and collaborator with Dorothy Sayers, an amateur historian and a playwright who perceived in the 3,000 extant letters of the Lisle family "a concentrated and sustained narrative interest, with a tragic and dramatic climax." In fact, her editorial comments read rather like stage directions for a performance in which people move in and out with bewildering profusion and the director must be constantly reminded hwo is related to whom, who has appeared before, and what the main story is all about.

There are three central actors. Arthur Plantagenet, Vicount Lisle, "the gentlest heart living," is a likeable but somewhat ineffectual nobleman, who in 1533 was appointed by his cousin Henry VIII to be Lord Deputy of the port of Calais, England's last and beleaguered foothold on the continent. His wife Honor is a woman of great force of character, if at times a little "sharp and hasty," who is clearly the power behind her husband and is not popular with the politicians at court because they know that "with a few words and present of a penny" they can easily "have his lordship's good will," as long as "my lady was not in the way." Finally, there is John Husee, "a jewel of a man" and the real hero of the letters -- he contributed over 500 of them -- who spends his energy and his patience fronting for Lord and Lady Lisle at court, patching up their desperate finances, looking after their legal and landed interests, and performing a host of odd jobs that made life easy for the entire Lisle family. He is a delightful breath of practical and commonsense air in the midst of idiotic, aristocratic posing and economic irresponsibility; "conform yourself . . . to the world as it goeth now" was his constant advice.

Then there are a multitude of greater and lesser characters. The sly, malevolent, psychopathic sovereign rarely appears on stage, but his willful personality casts its baneful shadow across everyone's life. Thomas Cromwell, "my Lord Privy Seal," controls entree to the king's privy chamber, and manipulates events and people like a consummate puppeteer. All the major personalities of a flamboyant and ruthless world put in their appearance: the Duke of Norfolk, Sir Richard Rich, Mr. Secretary Wriothesley, Bishop Gardiner; the cast reads like a Tudor Who's Who.

The final production is a rich, if confusing, pageant involving the hopes, fears, trivialities, preoccupations and intrigues of people in every walk of life. The letters probably give the best picture of the day-to-day operation of Tudor politics ever painted, of how patronage, land deals, decision making, and naked ambition worked in terms of personal successes and failures. Lord Lisle is forever lost in a "wilely world." Lady Lisle must sacrifice part of her marriage jointure as the price Cromwell demands for his influence in preventing the Earls of Bridgewater and Herford from fleecing her son of his future inheritance. Poor William Rose "with weeping tears" begs for a post in Calais because "his wife will not suffer him in ease no manner of way" and "is so unreasonable a woman." Exhausted John Husee must rush off, "for sometime one hour missing attendance upon my Lord Privy Seal [Cromwell] may hinder a month's suit." As a climax, the reader is treated to the sight of Robert Whethill who had "many lookers-over" when he came to court clad in a coat of crimson taffeta, lined with yellow sarcenet, a shirt "wrought with gold," scarlet hosen and crimson velvet breeches edged in yellow with shoes and scabbard to match, a cloak of red frisado and a scarlet cap replete with red and yellow feathers -- the prototype for a dozen Malvolios.

The climax of the story is sheer drama, helped along with more than a little editorial manipulation on the part of Miss St. Clare Byrne. That arch villain "Gregory Sweet-lips," the "most mischievous knave that ever was born," hatches the plot that eventually entangles Lord Lisle in treason. Cromwell turns from a good, if self-serving, patron of gentle-hearted Lisle into a "backfriend" who engineers the Lord Deputy's downfall by playing on the king's diseased mind and poisoning it with a trumped up tale that Lisle was planning to betray Calais to the French. And ultimately, the double-dealing Lord Privy Seal himself is destoyed by the personal hatreds and religious hysteria that flourished at court. It is all strong meat and makes splendid reading.

But is it good history? The trouble is that Miss St. Clare Byrne's history -- its approach even more than its scholarship -- is almost 40 years out of date. Henrican England is presented as a dicatorship, and, Thomas Cromwell becomes the "perfect robot of the absolute, omnicompetent state." Henry, for all of his psychopathic babbling, is still the sovereign in tune with the silent majority of his subjects and the harbinger of England's future greatness. Although a new, and in part convincing, expanation is given for Lord Lisle's imprisonment for treason, the fall of Thomas Cromwell remains as great a mystification as ever. The puppetmaster suddenly and unexpectedly becomes "the Whitehall ostrich, burying its head in the sand to avoid recognition of the facts he did not wish to face and accept."

There is a great deal that the professional historian can find to criticize: the use of "missing letters" to prove a hypothesis; the extraordinary obsession to disprove the charges of adultery, incest and treason against Anne Boleyn and the rather muddled analysis of the nature of the evidence against her; the picture of the mentally diseased sovereign which is trotted out whenever the need arises; the not very probable redating of Lord Lisle's birth and the passionate defence of his doubtful administrative abilities; and finally, the tendency to view and explain court and national politics from the perspective of Calais.

Yet, when all the faults are noted and readers are warned that they are in for a great deal of editorial mothering. prompting and cajoling, the fact remains that Muriel St. Clare Byrne has created a new kind of history, a tale told in the dictum of common life, in which we begin to care about the human shadows emerging from the past. We worry along with Honor that Lord Lisle for a second time is going to allow himself to be politically and economically "screwed" by Cromwell. We are disturbed when Lord and Lady Lisle pay no need to the plight of their grocer, to whom they owe a fortune. We get irritated at Cromwell when he writes one of his masterpieces of bureaucratic evasions, in which he commits himself to nothing and subtly shifts all potential blame on to unfortunate Lisle and the Calais council. And we are touched by the final ironic twist of the story. After two years in the Tower of London, Lord Lisle is fully pardoned, but the shock of the good news is too much: he dies the next day of a heart attack.

Whatever their failings, The Lisle Letters are a magnificent experiment; and those readers who have the leisure, along with considerable perseverance, and are interested in history as it was actually lived, will find the effort immensely rewarding. The following is an exerpt from The Lisle Letters . Lord Lisle to Lady Lisle

Mine own sweetheart, after my whole and entire recommendations, this shall be signifying you that as this day I would have departed homewards, but my business hath been such that I could in no wise finish the same. So that tomorrow the Palsgrave and I without fail do repair towards Calais, and will be at Dover within ij days after; trusting the ship shall be ready at our coming, according unto my letter sent unto Mr. Ryngeley for the same. I trust at my coming you shall know, and other my friends, that I have concluded mine affairs in such sort that they are at a right good point, as you shall know at my coming, which I trust shall not be long tracted . . . .

The Palsgrave hath him most heartily recommended unto you, and thinketh long will he be there. He hath 2000 marks for his reward. This is no ill journey for him.

I have sent you venison in Bartlett's board, and xx oxen to Dover, praying you to think none vnkyndness in me that I have been slowe in wrytyng.

your louyng husband for euer Arthur Lyssle (October 6, 1539) Reprinted from "The Lisle Letters" by arrangement with the University of Chicago Press. c 1981 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.