THE IMAGE of Eleanor Roosevelt as it emerges from these three books evokes contradictory reactions. On the one hand, there is admiration for the career achievements that led Harry Truman to describe Mrs. Roosevelt as "First Lady of the World." That career is succinctly outlined in "Life was Meant To Be Lived," Joseph P. Lash's handsomely illustrated centenary portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt. On the other hand, it is hard not to feel a kind of exasperated pity over the frustrations of this woman's private life.

Self-doubt began early in Eleanor Roosevelt with the knowledge, painfully reinforced by her mother's habit of calling her "Granny," that her looks were plain. Lack of confidence extended to other areas. She didn't think she could ever learn to drive or to type or to accomplish anything worthwhile. She could swim but was afraid to dive. In Eleanor Roosevelt, An Eager Spirit we find Dorothy Dow, a secretary at the White House who had once taught physical education, writing about what happened when she taught the first lady to dive.

"She was anxious to perform for the President as he had said he didn't believe she could do it," she wrote her sister in July 1939.When FDR came down to the pool to see for himself, "Mrs. R. walked out on the board, got all set in the proper form, and went in -- flat as she could be . . . I thought the President would explode laughing . . . Mrs. R came up red in the face, with a really grim expression, said nothing, walked out on the board again and did a perfect dive."

It was a revealing incident. Instead of encouraging her, Franklin Roosevelt, who must surely have been aware of his wife's lifelong insecurities, tended to reinforce her sense of ineptitude. But life had already taught Eleanor Roosevelt persistence. She soldiered on throughout her marriage, despite the interference of a domineering mother-in-law, despite the blow to her ego that came with the revelation of her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer. That would have been enough reason to end the marriage, but her sense of responsibility for five young children led her to stick it out. The Roosevelt's remained a family but "renounced certain marriage claims on each other," as Lash puts it, and the time came, after the birth of a son in 1916, when they no longer shared a bed.

Is it any wonder, then, that the love-starved woman needed outlets for her bountiful capacity for affection? She found them in friends, women and men, who valued her independence, her vitality, her idealism and generosity of spirit. In exchange for their regard she gave infinite solicitude and unending attention to their well-being. If she expressed romantic feelings in extravagant terms, it may have been out of hope they would respond in kind. She wrote to one friend: "I love you dearly . . . but try to remember to tell me that you want to be loved by me now and then." Even in this plea for an expression of mutual caring, she dared not go beyond asking that her love be accepted.

A World of Love is a comprehensively annotated collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's letters from 1943 to her death in 1962. It is a companion volume to the 1982 Love, Eleanor by the same author, covering earlier correspondence. Both were compiled to rebut the charge that Mrs. Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock had been lovers, a charge strongly implied in a 1980 biography of Hickock. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., in his foreward to Love, Eleanor, urged that his mother's letters to Lorena Hickock "be read in the context of those written to other close friends." Lash offers the opinion, in his sensitively drawn centenary portrait, that the relationship "more likely was erotic on Hickock's part, especially since she had other lesbian relationships, but the point seems almost irrelevant in view of Franklin's indifference to Eleanor." He concludes that "unburdening herself to Hickock helped her out emotionally."

IT IS CLEAR from the hundreds of letters in A World of Love that the need to unburden was ever present. Many of the most ardent notes were handwritten at the end of a busy day. In the absence of a husband with whom she could share her late-night thoughts, such letters were the equivalent of a goodnight embrace.

About half the letters focus on Joseph Lash and Trude Pratt, the woman Lash wooed and later wed with Eleanor Roosevelt's enthusiastic connivance. The second half details her infatuation with her physician, David Gurewitsch, a man 20 years her junior. Her love for him was steadfast even as she lived through his ambivalence over divorcing his wife and his affairs with a series of other women. At one point she sent him a note which is as painful to read as it must have been painful for her to write. She had failed to get an expected phone call from him that night. In a pencilled scrawl she wrote:

"I've always known I couldn't mean much to you but suddenly I had to face how little I meant to you. I was crushed and rejected . . . . If you can find it in your heart now and then to want me a little & to ask for my presence it would help my self respect. Otherwise, I do all the asking, a beggar wanting & asking too much & therefore feeling ashamed."

She was, Lash writes, "a lonely woman unable to count on coming first with anyone." However thwarted she may have felt, she learned to accept second-best. Once given, her loyalty and concern never flagged. She was generous with material gifts and unsparing in her efforts to promote the welfare of those she loved. Long after Lorena Hickock had ceased to be the principal object of her affections, she saw to it that writing jobs came Hickock's way. She used her contacts to help Joseph Lash get established as a journalist once he was discharged from the Army; she exerted similar efforts to secure employment for Pratt. Weh Gurewitsch remarried, she held the wedding in her apartment.

Changes of court favorites led to understandable resentments. Lash quotes a 1959 entry in his diary: "I must say that being thrust aside for David was one of the hardest things to bear these past ten years." There were strong feelings on the part of others close to Mrs. Roosevelt. Malvina "Tommy" Thompson, her secretary, bridled over the favors shown to Lorena Hickock, especially that for two years she lived rent-free in the White House. Tommy also had some sharp comments to make about Lash. In 1941 she complained to Mrs. Roosevelt's old friend, Esther Lape, that Lash was burdening the First Lady by loading her calendar with appointments. "I tried to talk to Joe Lash about weighing every request," she wrote, "but he goes gaily on asking and dragging people in, and then he looks so smug and cat-eating-the-canaryish. However, when Mrs. R. so thoroughly spoils people, I suppose they can't be blamed for taking all they can get."

Very different is the view of Eleanor Roosevelt as a dynamo of energy and efficient management that emerges from the letters Dorothy Dow sent her family during the summers she worked at Val-Kill cottage near Hyde Park. She described her job in July 1938: "One must work in a turmoil all of the time. There are millions of interruptions. Mrs. Roosevelt comes in the morning with a few letters to dictate, some telegrams to phone, orders to give the yard boy and help, and instructions for Nelly, who makes all of the ice cream and rolls . . . I just start to do my letters and carry out instructions when Mrs. R is apt to dash in again ready to do her daily column, "My Day." She dictates this as I type . . . Then, before I get that copied with her corrections and changes, she is likely to have more instructions . . . I have never seen anyone like her."

Nelly, Mrs. Roosevelt's former cook, ran a tea room in Hyde Park. "Nelly was telling me," Dorothy Dow wrote her sister, "that one day last summer she had a terrible cold and was so sick she couldn't get out of bed. Mrs. R heard about it, came down, rushed in with camphor, rubbed her chest and fixed her all up [then] came back with her sleeves rolled up; she had gone to the kitchen, washed all the dishes and cleaned up the whole place."

Apart from passionate outpourings, the letters cited in A World of Love often communicated Eleanor Roosevelt's shrewd insights into the political, social and international issues that dominated events during the last two decades of her life, a period that embraced the final two years of World War II, the death of her husband, her appointment to the United Nations, and the foreign travels that subsequently took her all over the globe. There were few world figures she did not meet, and she wrote candidly about her likes and dislikes.

It is regrettable that these nuggets are buried in the welter of correspondence, some of it trivial, that the conscientious author seemingly felt it necessary to include. The book would have benefitted by judicious cutting. Nevertheless, one can discern, in this complex mosaic, the image of a woman growing steadily in self-assurance, holding fast to principles and gradually coming to understand both the extent of her influence and how to make that influence felt.

A final word about A World of Love. It could not have been easy for Joseph Lash the biographer to put together a manuscript in which Joseph Lash the friend of Eleanor Roosevelt figured so prominently. I respect the objectivity and painstaking craftsmanship he brought to the task. But I find myself almost wishing he had not undertaken it.

Eleanor Roosevelt had an unvarying rule with respect to Westbrook Pegler's repeated attacks on her: she refused to answer any of them. Would her memory not have been better served by a similar policy of silence in relation to her intimate correspondence? She never allowed her emotional entanglements to impinge on her public duties. Where and when it counted, she stood tall. That is the way she deserves to be remembered. CAPTION: Picture 1, Eleanor Roosevelt, Photograph (c) Copyright by Karsh of Ottawa from "A World of Love;" Picture 2, The President and Mrs. Roosevelt in 1940. Photograph from "Life Was Menat to Be Lived"