ELLEN TERRY Player in Her Time By Nina Auerbach Norton. 504 pp. $22.50

HOWEVER physically attractive as a book, Nina Auerbach's Ellen Terry does not live up to its packaging. Given the existence of two solid biographies, by Roger Manvell (1968) and Tom Prideaux (1975), perhaps yet another life of the famous Victorian-era actress has to be unconventional to have any excuse for existence. Nina Auerbach's version, however, is a pastiche of scholarship. It leans heavily upon quotations from Manvell for its facts and upon a plethora of references to the Terry literature by her daughter Edy and Edy's lesbian lover "Christopher St. John," plus 32 references to Virginia Woolf, for its feminist biases. From beginning to end, this tract in biographical clothing is short on concrete details about how Ellen Terry lived and worked, while long on quotations from Victorian poetry, feminist explications, internal contradictions and opinions represented as facts. Life escapes.

That Ellen Terry's abilities were misused by a rapacious masculine world is as false as it is true. One can claim that even about Queen Victoria. No woman, however, suffered less at the hands of an allegedly repressive society for her sexual waywardness than did Ellen Terry. Wed at 16 to the 46-year-old painter George Frederic Watts, she abandoned her child roles on the stage to become more his model than his wife. Within a year the unconsummated marriage ended with Ellen's flight to the bed of esthetic architect Edward William Godwin, with whom she lived for six years and by whom she had her two children. When she returned to the stage, an increasingly adoring public cared not a rap that the "fallen women" she often played were much like herself. She paid in life none of the social consequences required of her in the theater.

After the faithless Godwin came Shakesperean actor-impresario Henry Irving, whose partner she was before the curtain and between the sheets. Then there were other lovers, as well as two much younger husbands, and roles, other than her famous Portia, Viola and Lady Macbeth (painted memorably by J.S. Sargent), that were largely unworthy of her artistry. None of that made the slightest difference to her charmed audiences. Even Queen Victoria invited Irving and Terry to perform at Windsor Castle (an event, like many, missing from the book). And, other than the queen, says Auerbach, no working woman in her time made more money than Ellen Terry.

WHY THEN, is this life so pathetic a portrait of one of the major actresses of her century? Not because her large talents were often abused, or because her rhapsodically described devotion to the straying Godwin kept her offstage at the peak of her potential, but because, according to the author, the masculine ascendancy prevented her from developing her possibilities. As example, Auerbach claims that Bernard Shaw "withheld" his Caesar and Cleopatra from Ellen Terry, yet she finds it too unimportant to mention that Terry was a grandmother of 53 when Shaw created his sex kitten of 16. The role Shaw did offer was the assertive Lady Cecily, who dominates Captain Brassbound's Conversion. (Later it would be played effectively by Ingrid Bergman among others.) Terry refused it until she was a fading and ineffective 59, unable to remember her lines. Auerbach explains that the role was "talkative" and that Terry had already lost her memory and soon her stage career -- but for solo readings -- because she hated her roles and "kept losing the silly words." A political, rather than a pathological, diagnosis.

Many such charges are excessive and unpersuasive. Other Victorian and Edwardian actresses, for example, matured successfully into management. Ellen Terry did not -- not because a hostile male world kept her out but because she was notoriously unbusinesslike and let her considerable earnings slip through her fingers. And those fingers themselves? Auerbach claims that Terry was ashamed of her large, unfeminine hands and hid them from the camera, yet dozens of illustrations in her own book prove otherwise. One can go on citing internal contradictions. but they are not as crucial as the sheer sadness of the picture interpreted here as feminist idyll.

Ellen Terry was hardly a paragon, feminist or otherwise. She even blocked her daughter's marriage prospects, happily settling -- even arranging -- for a me'nage a' trois with Edy and "Christopher" so that she could keep Edy near. The second time she interfered it was while she was scheming, at 60, to wed an actor young enough to be her son. Although communication from Edy ceased for the two-year span of the predictably doomed marriage, when it was over Terry returned casually to Edy and "Christopher."

Ellen Terry's decades of decline -- she died at 81 in 1928 -- were managed for her in a series of overlapping lesbian menages. The old, now blind and intermittently insane derelict was alternately exploited and revered by her protectors, who published letters and memoirs that turned her earlier years into tragedies and triumphs and her later ones into a feminist Camelot. Charles DeGaulle once called old age a shipwreck. When Ellen Terry was a debt-ridden 66 and appealed to Shaw to find her a role, G.B.S. (who had met her only a few times, notwithstanding their long correspondence) explained bluntly that her reputation precluded bit parts: "A tiny yacht may throw its mast overboard and end its day quietly and serviceably as a ferry boat; but a battleship cant do that, and you are a battleship." And a shipwrecked dreadnought she was, although reduced in Nina Auerbach's lens to feminist ferryboat.

Stanley Weintraub is the editor of "Bernard Shaw: The Diaries 1885-1897" and author of "Victoria: An Intimate Biography."