Priscilla Bell was born into a family in Tottenham, then a village north of London. Her father was Daniel Bell of Stamford Hill, Middlesex, his wife Catharine was the granddaughter of the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay. She married Edward Wakefield (1750–1826), a London merchant, and had three children. Writing to support her family financially, she wrote seventeen books in two decades. She was one of many female English writers at the end of the eighteenth century who began to demand a wider life for women. Charities which she founded included a maternity hospital, a Female Benefit Club, and a Penny Bank for children, which developed into England's first savings bank.
Mrs. Wakefield died at the house of her daughter, Mrs. Head, on Albion Hill, Ipswich, on 12 September 1832, and was buried on 20 December in the Friends' burial-ground at the New Meeting House, Ipswich. A portrait of Mrs. Wakefield, her husband Edward Wakefield and her sister, Catherine Bell, painted by [Francis Wheatley], was exhibited at South Kensington in 1868.
A portrait in lithograph is in the London Friends' Institute. She was a member of the Society of Friends, and conformed to their religious practice, but did not observe their restrictions in regard either to dress or to abstinence from amusements. Mrs. Elizabeth Fry was her niece. She had two sons and a daughter. Two sons were Edward Wakefield (1774-1854) and Daniel Wakefield. The daughter, Isabella (d. 17 Oct. 1841), married Jeremiah Head of Ipswich. Edward Gibbon Wakefield was her grandson.
Wakefield wrote books on a range of subjects, including natural science, feminism, and children's literature consisting of moral tales.
Wakefield published a book on feminism in 1778, Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement, which was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Wakefield examined women's prospects for employment in the modern world in light of Adam Smith's writings, and supported broader education for women.
Mrs. Wakefield was widely known as a writer of children's literature. Her early publication, Juvenile Anecdotes, founded on Facts, was successful, and she went on to publish other books of the same nature, and of a more advanced character, dealing with science and travel.
By the time she died, Wakefield had written seventeen books, many of them appearing in multiple editions and even translated into foreign languages.
Wakefield had considerable knowledge of botany and natural history, and in 1796 she published An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, London, 12mo, which was translated into French in 1801, and reached an eleventh edition in 1841. It was followed by An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters, London, 1816, 12mo.
- Mental Improvement: Or, the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art, 1794
- Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts, 1795-8 Two well received volumes that went through to an eighth edition in 1825.
- Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement, 1798
- The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe, 1801. Her most popular work, a book of imaginative fiction that reached the nineteenth edition in 1850.
- Domestic Recreation: Or, Dialogues Illustrative of Natural and Scientific Subjects, 1805
- An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, London, 12mo
- An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters, London, 1816, 12mo.
- Carlyle, Edward Irving (1899). "Wakefield, Priscilla". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Ann B. Shteir, ‘Wakefield , Priscilla (1750–1832)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 24 Oct 2008. Shteir rather peculiarly refers to Barclay as a 'Quaker martyr'.
- RDM, 'Wakefield, Priscilla (Bell)', in Lorna Sage, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, Cambridge University Press, 1999
- DNB, 1900 cite (Cat. Third Loan Exhib. No. 887)
- Guest, Harriet (2000). Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810. University of Chicago Press. p. 319. ISBN 9780226310527.
- Fara, Patricia (2004). Pandora's breeches : women, science and power in the Enlightenment. London: Pimlico. p. 205. ISBN 9781844130825.
- This article incorporates material from "Wakefield, Priscilla". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Portraits of Priscilla Wakefield at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Aindow, Rosy. "Priscilla Wakefield (1751-1832)". The Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Robert Clark, Emory Elliott and Janet Todd.