Virginia novelist Garrett Epps stood on the raised hearth of a suburban Richmond home last night and delivered an endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Henry E. Howell that his intellectual audience could appreciate.

Speaking of Howell's Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton, Epps said: "Win or lose, John Dalton is going to end up as nothing more than a footnote in the biographies of Elizabeth Taylor."

The expansive living room before Epps was packed with Democrats who regard Dalton as an unimaginative, small town lawyer. They are aghast that a Hollywood star, piling up chits for her politically ambitious husband, John Warner, could succeed in glamorizing Dalton in her many appearances for him.

On these listeners, EPps' neat and literate thrust had a tonic effect that even their phrasemaking hero, Howell, could not have achieved. "Beautiful," was the murmur that rippled through the room as they cheered Epps on.

The young author would likely agree that his endorsement of Howell is of modest political moment, probably not destined to attain even footnote status in accounts of his campaign. Nonetheless, in the social and political setting of Richmond, and because of who Epps is and who Howell is, it is at least an entertaining diversion.

There is a wall of social discretion that encloses Richmond's elite and Epps in an intellectual crack in it. At 27, he has distinguished himself with a first novel. "The Shad Treatment," a political tale strongly flavored by Howell's unsuccessful race against Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin in 1973.

Epps is a product of the Richmond class that speaks of "the University" (meaning the University of Virginia) or ""the Club" (meaning the Country Club of Virginia) with the same understated familiarity with which other folk refer to "the post office" or "the store."

He is descended from 17th-century Virginians, but he analyzes his hertitage with unfashionable candor. At the time his book was published, he said he believes the Civil War probably saved Virginia from evolving from a slave state into a societal structure similar to that of South Africa.

Like many of his lesser known listeners, Epps believes the society from which he and they are sprung still is shackled in injustices and believes further that Howell's populism is the next trauma Virginia needs to save her from herself.

"Virginia cannot go on poisoning our rivers . . . treating our consumers with contempt . . . treating school teachers like whipping boys," he said.

"We cannot have another governor who treats the Bill of Rights like subversive literature. I am appalled at the way Republicans have treated Virginians. I believe that things will change under Henry Howell, and that is enough to make me vote for him.

Epps reminded the crowd that Howell "time after time was willing to stand up for human rights." fought against the closing of schools to avoid desegregation and against the poll tax when it was used to discourage black Virginians from voting.

For these actions, he said.Howell has "paid a price" extracted by the Virginia political establishment. "He's been ostracized and vilified." Epps said. "They have said things about him that would make Spiro Agnew blush.

"I'm from Richmond, and I don't have to tell you the lies that editorial writers have written about him." The conservative editorial writers of the Richmond newspapers have been vigorous critics of Howell for years.

When Epps retired from the hearth, David Belser introduced the candidate by singing "The Ballad of Henry Howell." written by the balladeer. Its refrain: "Henry Howell is the one who will do us all some justice in Virginia."

Nearing the end of another long campaign week, Howell took a while getting up to the rhetorical pace set by EPps. When he did, he took another shot at the injustice he perceives in the 20-cent pay call.

"Now we come down to a question of fairness, the 20-cent phone call . . ." he said. "When you have to drop a quarter in a phone, you know how much you get back. Nothing.

"But if a young black boy is in the A&P and takes a nickel apple - you can't get an apple for a nickel, but if you could and he did take a nickel apple they would take him right down to the jail.

"They would put him in jail because you can't take a nickel's worth of property in Virginia when it doesn't belong to you unless you are the phone company."

Howell wound up with a song of his own, "Vepco Loves Me." a lampoon of the Virginia Electric and Power Co. sung to the tune of "Jesus Loves Me."

The party for Howell and Epps was held in an affluent Henrico County subdivision that is the residential equivalent of Lake Barcroft or West Bethesda.

Howell votes in that neighborhood are as scare as descendants of the Grand Army of the Republic. Nevertheless, a convivial crowd of several hundred, including many Howell staffers, turned out in bad weather for a partisan mixer before the campaign enters the home stretch.

The eating and drinking and laughter laster until midnight. Throughout it all, a spotlighted live donkey stood tethered in the chill rain to a lakeside cabana behind the house.