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Unique role for artist-naturalist's wife; Lucy Audubon, by Carolyn Delatte. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 248 pp. $15.95.

When you look at a portfolio edition of John James Audubon's spectacular drawings from nature, little do you realize the lifetime of effort and sacrifice it required.

You begin to understand when you read this engaging, well-documented biography of Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1788-1874). Born in England to a well-to-do family, Lucy was surrounded by amenities. After the family moved to Pennsylvania , Lucy met and married a fun-loving and eccentric young Frenchman, John James Audubon, even though her parents were divided in their approval.

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The West beckoned, and the adventurous young Audubon formed a partnership with a fellow Frenchman to start a series of stores along the frontier, in Louisville, then down the Ohio River in Henderson, and finally in a French outpost named Ste. Genevieve. Despite her genteel upbringing, Lucy adjusted well to the rowdiness and toughness of frontier life. In fact, her first child was born upstairs in a noisy rough-hewn frontier inn. (Peripheral research done by the author on the hardships of life during these years forms an excellent backdrop for the biography.)

The store in Henderson flourished for a while, and other investments were profitable. Financial problems began, however, when members of Lucy's family joined in building an ill-advised mill and pulled out, leaving the Audubons destitute and homeless. Hardest of all was the loss of respect from Lucy's family and former friends.

John James had always hunted wildlife in the Southern woods, pursuing his hobby of taking a sketch pad along to record unfamiliar species of birds. In fact, exploring the woods, often for days on end, interested him infinitely more than minding the store. When his business collapsed, he turned to painting to support his family.

After delving into private collections and archives preserving Audubon memorabilia as well as many published works on the painter, Delatte points out that Lucy's life became one long road of poverty, difficulties in child rearing - she lost two girls in infancy, while two boys survived - and separations from her husband as he traveled to New Orleans and Natchez trying to find work.

By the time the couple formulated a dream of publishing John James's drawings of birds, Lucy was the family wage earner. As a necessity, she started teaching, first in exchange for board in a friend's home, then in her own, moving into a salaried position on a plantation, where she taught the daughters along with starting a successful school for neighboring plantation girls. Records show that Lucy Audubon not only shone in teaching the three R's, but in music, sewing , social conduct, swimming, and horsemanship.

Later on, Lucy established a second school, which was even more lucrative than the first. Here, she was given not only a nice home but earned respect and social standing on her own - a remarkable feat in an era when women were barely allowed to earn wages. Meanwhile, her husband was free to pursue his art and research on wildlife.

Biographer Delatte traces Lucy's struggles during the unending separations from her husband in a rather careful prose style. She states that Lucy's one hope was to be always first in John James's life. Despite genuine devotion for each other, during much of her married life Lucy was denied fulfillment of this hope. Letters to John James in the middle years of their marriage show clearly the deep bitterness she felt because art was always his foremost interest.

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Minute misunderstandings grew into mountainous ones, while Audubon spent more than three years in England (having been unsuccessful in America) seeking a publisher for his dream - reproductions of life-size drawings of birds. After finding one, he had to pay production costs and supervise the engravers. Beyond this, he had to travel all over England to sell the initial series of five prints himself, to make enough money to continue. For much of the book, the reader has the impression that Lucy was miserably treated by her husband, but Delatte switches suddenly to give John James credibility, and the book balance, when she tells his side of the publishing story.

John James eventually did return to America, at the risk of letting his project fail. After a happy reconciliation, the two traveled to England, where the original prints of ''The Birds of America'' were published, with Lucy helping immeasurably with the financial side of the venture and sharing fully in future projects.

After years of struggle the Audubons returned to a position of status, first in England, then in America. Once again they were accepted by family and friends , but beyond this, artists, statesmen, and even nobility.

Much has been written on John James Audubon, but author-professor Carolyn Delatte has given us a first major look at the unique and talented woman who stood strongly both behind him and by his side.

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