The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion

The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion

The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion

The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Writing in a careful hand on a single sheet of paper, in 1786 Susanah Wersley begged Virginia’s General Assembly for a divorce. She described herself as a victim of the American Revolution. Five years earlier, while the fighting raged close to her home in Hanover County, her family had sheltered a sick colonial soldier, John Wersley, who claimed to be an officer from North Carolina. During a prolonged convalescence he courted the impressionable young woman. Susanah fell in love and, against the advice of her parents and other relatives, married him the following spring. the newlyweds had lived together for just a month when her husband announced that he needed to visit his mother briefly in New Bern. Susanah eventually discovered that he was in Boston. Obviously John had deceived her into marriage and never intended to live with her again. She petitioned the legislature to pass a private bill dissolving their marriage. No other venue existed where she might seek relief. the state had no divorce code, and the courts lacked jurisdiction.

The approach Susanah Wersley took to remedy her situation was not unusual. Throughout the colonial period and at least until the Civil War, women and men, singly or in groups, sought relief of varied kinds and expressed their views on a host of subjects by petitioning their elected representatives. At each session the lawmakers approved dozens of private bills to assist individuals and communities. But they rejected Susanah’s petition, as they would hundreds of others from unhappy spouses for the next sixty-five years. During that time the assembly approved divorces for only one-third of the applicants. Meanwhile, decades passed before the courts gained even the most limited authority. the way Virginians terminated marriages dramatically illustrates how far removed we are from their world. in our no-fault era the very idea of asking legislators to provide a divorce by private bill boggles the mind. But well into the nineteenth century, Virginia law afforded no other option for desperately unhappy women and men trapped in loveless relationships.

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