Vanessa Bell, by Frances Spalding. New York and New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields. 399 pp. $22.95. Artist Vanessa Bell sat serenely in the garden, making doll clothes for her children, . . . but her sister, writer Virginia Woolf, knew there were ''volcanoes under her sedate manner.''
Vanessa was a paradox. On the one hand, this quiet earth mother doted on her kin and stabilized her eccentric friends; on the other hand, her smoldering energy found release in living and loving as she pleased, with painting as her core.
Using largely unpublished sources, art historian Frances Spalding focuses on this artist, whose work has receded in public memory since the 1930s. Spalding includes a collection of black-and-white as well as color photographs of Vanessa's Post-Impressionist-influenced painting.
Vanessa's family and intimates - among them reviewer Clive Bell, art critic Roger Fry, and artist Duncan Grant - add texture to this tightly woven biography. All were part of England's Bloomsbury crowd, those upper-class intellectuals whose rebellious behavior and modernist art set the establishment on its ear.
Spalding does not judge the independent Vanessa - she just records an unconventional life. E.L. The Bread Box Papers, by Helen Hartman Gemmill. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Dorrance & Co. 275 pp. $22.95.
E.L. was Dickens's ''little darling,'' Dumas's dinner guest, a character in Henry Adams's best-selling novel, ''Democracy.'' Elizabeth Lawrence, wife of a wealthy diplomat, was a 19th-century ''Auntie Mame'' whose conversation sparkled like the finest crystal on her dining table.
Writing letters as she traveled from Washington to London to the Continent, E. L. observed her times with an eye for customs, costume, and convention - an ear for drawing-room dialogue and behind-the-fan gossip.
With a cache of Elizabeth's letters recently discovered in an old family breadbox and a musty scrapbook of pressed flowers, photographs, and vintage post cards, the author stirs E. L. The Bread Box Papers into a tasty concoction - rich as plum pudding.
Elizabeth leads an animated parade of celebrities across the pages. She sips tea with actress Fanny Kemble, breakfasts with poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, dances with author Thackeray.
''E.L. The Bread Box Papers'' may be one of the liveliest surprises ever found under a Christmas tree. The Crazy Years, Paris In The Twenties, by William Wiser. New York: Atheneum. 256 pp. $27.50.
''This Paris,'' said Catalan painter Miro ''has shaken me from head to foot - in the good sense.'' As Paris broke free from World War I doldrums, regaining its unrestrained atmosphere, artists felt the stirring.
m Wiser describes a restless 1920s Paris enthused with new life as emigres from the Russian revolution poured from the East and American expatriates - living high on the dollar - arrived from the West. Composer Sergei Prokofiev and artist Marc Chagall mingled with writers James Thurber and Robert Sherwood.
This was the city where artistic trends moved as swiftly as Parisian taxicabs , with Cubism on the wane, Surrealism on the rise - the place where artists abandoned the nightclub area of Montmartre to follow Picasso to the new low-rent district of Montparnasse.
The photographs in the book are touching: Self-deluded Zelda Fitzgerald poses hopefully in tutu; Sylvia Beach leans contentedly against the door of her writer's mecca, the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Madame de Sevigne, by Frances Mossiker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 538 pp. $22. 95.
In 1690 a French marquise wrote a letter to her married daughter. Over the next 20 plus years the lady Madame de Sevigne wrote over a thousand more.
Now Francophile Frances Mossiker has translated the missives into 20 th-century vernacular - a masterly undertaking which includes material exorcised by previous publishers. Even Madame de Sevigne's mild rebuke of her gambling son-in-law -''One wants to kiss him, one wants to slap him!'' - was considered too personal by earlier editors.
The letters, written by this unusually well-educated woman of her day, provide a rare link with daily life of 17th-century France. Madame Sevigne struggles with the generation-bridging problems of love, loneliness, and the loosening of maternal apron strings. She worries about age (''A thousand years ago I was born''), complains about the weather (''After the rain came the rain''), revels in a ''carpet of jonquils'' near her woods.
I'm glad I met Madame Sevigne, even though the anxiety-ridden quality of her early letters and the distracting footnotes put me off at first. Warm, witty, she only wanted ''a little kindness, a bit of security. . . .''
The nagging, naughty question remains: Would we have a Sevigne saga if Alexander Graham Bell had already invented the telephone? Pretty Babies, by Andrea Darvi. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 210 pp. $14. 95.
Kristy McNichol didn't have it. . . . Judy Garland blamed her mother for withholding it. . . . Natalie Wood paid psychiatrists fees because of it. . . . What did these actors miss so much? A normal childhood.
''Pretty Babies'' is the story of child stars who gave their early years to careers in movies, television, and commercials. They include the author, Andrea Darvi, herself. Because of her Mediterranean look, she often found herself passed over for the more popular blond, blue-eyed WASP type. Nevertheless, her brief career in acting gives her a vantage point from which to assess the pros and cons of child stardom.
Jerry Mathers (the Beaver) says he was overindulged, and Jay (Dennis the Menace) North believes status made him a brat. Kristy McNichol muses, ''I can't be a child now.'' With all the problems then, why do children stay in the kiddie race? Because, as Mrs. Withers reminded her daughter Jane, there is always some other child actor just waiting in the wings. . . . ''Don't you forget it.'' And, a grown-up Jane Withers says firmly, ''I never have.''
Sophisticates may yawn at Darvi's to-do about ''Pretty Babies,'' but not I. Just so you know, Jane dear, I still have your autographed 8-by-10 glossy.