In Mental Improvement Priscilla introduces her opposition to the slave trade. This is the first but by no means the last time that she uses her writing to promote the abolition cause. Quakers being a group particularly opposed to the practice.

 In a conversation on the origin of sugar Mr Harcourt states that sugar is produced in the West-Indies by negro slaves, ‘natives of Africa, snatched from their own country, friends and connections, by the hand of violence and power … they are sold to the planters of sugar –plantations, in an open market like cattle, and afterwards employed in the most laborious and servile occupations, and pass the rest of their lives in involuntary and wretched slavery’.

In protest the children all agree to forego products made with sugar.

Apparently in the 1790s many thousands of people in Britain were boycotting products produced by slaves in order to end the slave trade.

Published in: on August 30, 2009 at 4:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Mental Improvement

Mental Improvement: or the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art, Conveyed in a Series of Instructive Conversations was first published in two volumes in 1797. Priscilla states in the preface,   ‘would any child suppose, that the cloth, of which her frock is made, is composed of the fibrous parts of a green plant; or that the paper she draws upon, is the same substance wrought into a different form; that the transparent glass she drinks out of, was once a heap of sand and ashes; or that the ribbon she wears, is the product of an insect? The design of the following little work, is to excite the curiosity of young persons on these subjects, by furnishing information on a few of the most obvious’.

For this book Priscilla creates the Harcourt family – the first of her family characters. It consists of Mr and Mrs Harcourt, Sophia, Cecelia, Charles and Henry.  Unlike her earlier dialogues she brings the discussion into contemporary times with the characters talking about the origin of everyday objects such as sponges, salt and wool.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 5:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Edward Gibbon Wakefield was born on 20 March 1796 in London and he died on 16 May 1862 in Wellington, New Zealand.  Between these two dates is a remarkable life of a man of ideas and influence but a life that had many dark aspects and tragedies, sometimes of his own making. From about the turn of the century the young Edward Gibbon and his sister Catherine spent most of their childhood with their grandmother Priscilla. She took responsibility for their care and education.  The mature Catherine is in contrast to her brother whose bad behaviour would test a grandmother’s love.  But like Priscilla, in a difficult time in his life, Edward Gibbon turned to writing – not children’s stories, but books on colonisation.

Published in: on August 22, 2009 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  


Priscilla’s son Edward and his first wife Susan would have ten children the first Catherine in 1793, the last born in 1813 and the spent Susan dying three years later. The pattern of their births is interesting and rarely commented on by researchers. Edward and Susan married in 1791.

 Catherine Gurney – 1793

Edward Gibbon – 1796

Daniel Bell – 1798

Arthur – 1799

William Hayward – 1801

John Howard – 1803

Felix – 1807

Priscilla – 1809

Percy – 1810

Un-named – 1813

(Source: A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields, by Philip Temple, p. 6.)

 What is interesting is the seeming delay in the birth of the first child, followed by a three year gap, then a succession of pregnancies. This raises the possibility of babies that may have died or lost pregnancies. Nothing in the literature about the Wakefield family seems to have addressed in particular the gap between Catherine and Edward Gibbon. Yet every biography refers to the difficult behaviour of the young Edward Gibbon.  Possibly the behaviour of an over-indulged  son by parents recovering from a loss.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 4:46 am  Comments (1)  

Botanical Priscilla

The following researchers have written on Priscilla’s contribution to botany.

Fara, Patricia. Pandora’s Breeches : Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment, London: Pimlico, 2004.

George, Sam. From Modest Shoot to Forward Plant: Botany and the Cultivation of the Female Mind in Eighteenth-century Literature, Ph.D Dissertation, University of York (UK), 2005.

George, Sam. ‘Epistolary Exchange: the Familiar Letter and the Female Botonist, 1760-1820’ In Journal of Literature and Science, Vol 4, No. 1, 2011, pp. 12-29.

Martin, Alison E. ‘Revolutions in Botany: Nation, Gender and Education in the French Translation of Priscilla Wakefield’s Introduction to Botany (1796)’ In  In Journal of Literature and Science, Vol 4, No. 1, 2011, pp. 30-43.

Shteir, Ann B. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science : Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.  

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

An Introduction to Botany

Priscilla’s book An Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, with Illustrative Engravings,  was first published in 1796. In the preface she states, ‘botany is a branch of natural history that possesses many advantages ; it contributes to health of body and cheerfulness of disposition, by presenting an inducement to take air and exercise … till of late years, it has been confined to the circle of the learned, which may be attributed to those books that treat of it, being principally written in Latin ; a difficulty that deterred many, particularly the female sex, from attempting to obtain the knowledge of science… May it become a substitute for some of the trifling, not to say pernicious, objects, that too frequently occupy the leisure of young ladies of fashionable manners …’

To make the subject accessible to children Priscilla devised two characters, Sisters Felicia and Constance. The text consists of twenty eight letters from Felicia to Constance describing the various classes of plants.

An 1811 edition is available here : Introduction to Botany

The significance of this work is Priscilla’s move into a new subject area and specifically targeting the book at young women.  The female character Felicia imparts information through a letter format – one that Priscilla would use in many other books. And in the voice of Felicia Priscilla finds a personal mode of communication with the child reader.

Published in: on August 2, 2009 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  


This is the first year that we can hear Priscilla’s own words through her journal and it seems to be a defining one in her life. The death of her sister Lucy seems to have affected her deeply but on the positive side the success of her books was encouraging. On 24 June she wrote ‘received every encouragement relative to my writings that I can wish. Let me guard against the vanity that naturally follows success’.  She was busy with her charity work and in March 1796 Susan and Edward had a second child, a son called Edward Gibbon. In this year she published An Introduction to Botany, a book that would introduce elements that would define her particular style.

Published in: on August 1, 2009 at 5:23 am  Leave a Comment