The Great Catastrophe of My Life

Divorce in the Old Dominion

By Thomas E. Buckley, S.J.

360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 illus., 4 tables, 1 genealogical chart, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5380-1
    Published: September 2002
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6148-6
    Published: November 2003

Studies in Legal History

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From the end of the Revolution until 1851, the Virginia legislature granted most divorces in the state. It granted divorces rarely, however, turning down two-thirds of those who petitioned for them. Men and women who sought release from unhappy marriages faced a harsh legal system buttressed by the political, religious, and communal cultures of southern life. Through the lens of this hostile environment, Thomas Buckley explores with sympathy the lives and legal struggles of those who challenged it.

Based on research in almost 500 divorce files, The Great Catastrophe of My Life involves a wide cross-section of Virginians. Their stories expose southern attitudes and practices involving a spectrum of issues from marriage and family life to gender relations, interracial sex, adultery, desertion, and domestic violence. Although the oppressive legal regime these husbands and wives battled has passed away, the emotions behind their efforts to dissolve the bonds of marriage still resonate strongly.

About the Author

Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., is professor of American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union. He is editor of If You Love That Lady Don't Marry Her: The Courtship Letters of Sally McDowell and John Miller, 1854-1856.
For more information about Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., visit the Author Page.


"Fascinating firsthand accounts of people's lives, cutting across boundaries of gender, race, and class. . . . This is the book for those interested in the religious, social, and legal history of antebellum Virginia. Here is a clear explanation of legislative divorce in the Commonwealth, woven together with a description of religious culture, peppered with well-told stories about ordinary Virginians, their families, and their communities."--Richmond Times-Dispatch

"A rare glimpse behind the curtain of Victorian propriety. . . . Admirable. . . . A model monograph. It ably frames and elucidates its subject [and] pushes its argument with refreshing modesty."--Journal of Social History

"Buckley produces one of the most detailed views to date of antebellum southern families under stress."--American Historical Review

"This is a book that both fills an important gap in our historical knowledge and provides evocative tales of human heartbreak that still resonate."--William and Mary Quarterly

"Buckley has written a book in which there is something for almost everyone. Those interested in gender, religion, social structures and relationships, cultural values, racial issues, and political and economic considerations during the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War will find this book helpful. . . . Buckley has certainly illustrated the trauma associated with divorce as well as provided useful data and perspectives that ought to stimulate further contemplation and understanding of southern societies."--H-South

"Expose[s] southern attitudes and practices involving a spectrum of issues from marriage and family life to gender relations, interracial sex, adultery, desertion, and domestic violence."--American Catholic Studies Newsletter