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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 337-338

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The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion. By Thomas E. Buckley, S.J. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xiii, 346. $59.95 clothbound; $19.95 paperback.)

This book is packed with narrative, analyses, and divorce case studies. The author, a professor of American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology [End Page 337] at Berkeley, spent years combing manuscript and legal files relating to the issue of divorce and to actual divorces in Virginia between the end of the American Revolution and 1851, when a new constitution shifted the burden of granting divorces from the legislature to the courts.

Part one of the study consists of three chapters dealing respectively with the political/legal culture surrounding divorce in Virginia, the religious ethos, and the agency of families and communities who sometimes ignored Richmond, leading the author to conclude that "localism dominated life in the Old South." Readers of this journal may well be interested in chapter two regarding religion, but Buckley says little about Catholic antecedents and influence. Rather, the emphasis is on Anglicanism and the impact of evangelical sects.

Part two, also three chapters, explores causality, meaning the grounds that men and women put forth as reasons for divorce. The first of these chapters confronts race and sex, in other words, the comingling of white women and black men, and of white men and black women. Buckley presents an insightful discussion, one particularly germane to twenty-first-century America, where racial issues are still prevalent. The author rightly raises the question of how black men got the time away from work and a master's watchful eye to engage in illicit activities with married white women. Buckley concludes that such unions "suggest an openness in interracial sexual relations and a degree of white acceptance of sex across the color line that challenges historical generalizations and traditional stereotypes of both free blacks and the slaveholding society of the early nineteenth-century South" (p. 151). It also seems likely that some of these white women and black men took delight in flouting the white male system that held them in varying degrees of bondage.

Part three, made up of only one chapter, is the heartbreaker. Here, Buckley reveals the pain, despair, and stigma that descended on divorced people. One of these was Sally McDowell Thomas, who called her divorce "the great catastrophe of my life," which gives the book its title. In an eloquent epilogue, Buckley explains that even though some women rose above their divorces, most "generally encountered an unsympathetic culture" (p. 267).

This is a fine book, thoroughly researched and deftly written, yet its conclusion is debatable. Buckley sees Virginia as an oppressive atmosphere because the legislature granted only one-third of the petitions submitted. Comparing Virginia with other southern states, however, indicates that Virginia moved early and promptly. For instance, South Carolina prohibited divorce until 1949. It is also true that between 1803 and 1853 the all-male Virginia legislature, which one might assume was inaccessible and unsympathetic to female petitioners, granted sixty-nine divorces, or 51%, to women and sixty-six, or 49%, to men. Thus, it could also be argued that in its own era, Virginia was a "divorce" leader in the South.


Glenda Riley
Ball State University



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