The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is working with The Letters of William Godwin, edited by Pamela Clemit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), to bring new information about Godwin and his correspondence networks to a wider readership. To read more about the project, click here.
The first ODNB entry arising from this collaboration has now been published. The ODNB May 2016 update includes the biography of Rachel Prescott (1765/6-1824), the Manchester poet and philanthropist, co-authored by Pamela Clemit and Jenny McAuley.
Rachel Prescott was the daughter of a Manchester printer and newspaper proprietor. She is thought to have assisted her father in editing Prescott’s Manchester Journal. She was an enthusiastic reader of the works of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her early writings included some stanzas praising Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
Rachel Prescott was one of many people who read Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and then wrote to the author for advice on how to put his principles into practice in their lives. She wrote him two long letters in the spring of 1799, asking: ‘What are the individual, or reciprocal claims founded in marriage? and when this contract is discovered to be erroneously made, whether it is nevertheless to be irrevocable?’ (Letters of William Godwin, ii. 79, note 2.)
Rachel Prescott’s letter reached Godwin at a time when he was reconsidering his views on marriage (and seeking a second wife). His first wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797, had introduced him to a ‘new language’ of feeling. His ill-fated courtship of the author Harriet Lee in 1798 had further tested his convictions (and her patience). On 17 April he wrote Prescott a carefully-worded, four-page reply:
I hold the institution of marriage, as explained by our authorities in church & state, to be unfounded & injurious. I see no reason in nature or morality why a connection of two persons of different sexes should be treated as indissoluble … Yet I hold the exclusive attachment of man & woman … to be the dictate of taste, refinement & virtue … & to protect, the woman in particular, from misrepresentation & calumny, I should think it commendable to marry her in the established forms. (Letters of William Godwin, ii. 77-8.)
In the autumn of 1799 Rachel Prescott published a collection of poetry reflecting her progressive and humanitarian interests, which was reprinted in 1812. She died unmarried at Leigh, Lancashire, at the age of 58. Her will made provision for the founding of a local charity which lasted until 2011.
To find out more about Rachel Prescott and Godwin, see The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II: 1798-1805 (2014), now available in print, and, to subscribers, on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.