Miss Stead, a novelist of consequence rather than fashion, was permanently established years ago with The Man Who Loved Children. She reappeared last year with an earlier book, perhaps her most charming--buzzing with the scheming, chattering, volatile affairs in that small pension, The Little Hotel. This is something quite otherwise--the life cycle of a woman, an admittedly peripheral woman for all her notions of self and potential achievement. Such naivete, such narcissism. Although Eleanor Brent (the Herbert of the title is a tonier family name annexed at the instigation of her husband) is to begin with a true ""fresh, rose-leaf"" English beauty, she's unwilling to settle for a dull fiance and wants everything. This amounts to a string of casual lovers. Later she is more than ready to give up not-so-passionate love for commonplace domesticity--surely it will be more satisfying--although Heinz whom she marries quickly abandons her to her assiduous housewifery (and two children) and moves on. She should be doing something more important; she does write a book he dismisses as pornography--but this does not equip her for further work which she tries and fails to get. In fact, she's quite unemployable, and at 50, her children grown and growing away, there's nothing really ahead for Miss Herbert whose ideas de grandeur have fallen away to nothing. True, Eleanor, with her narcissism, her essential triviality, is a thankless character--never more than idly pitiable. On the other hand, with what consistency and conviction she has been portrayed--tantamount to a lost art and craft.