F. E. L. Priestley was born in Banbury, England, in March 1905. He was educated at Northampton Town and County School, and then in Canada at Lethbridge High School and Calgary Normal School, after which he taught school for a time. He obtained his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Alberta in 1930 and 1932. During this period he became an instructor at the University of Alberta in 1931 and 1934-36. He and Carman Dixon Craig married in Edmonton on August 2, 1933. Priestley earned his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1940, after which he became Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia until 1944, when he joined the University College Department of English at Toronto. Here, with assistance from the Representative Poetry Fund, he published his edition of William Godwin's Inquiry concerning Political Justice (1946). Priestley was honoured as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1953, and of the Royal Society Literature (UK) in 1958.
The Department of English selected him as the General Editor of the 1962-63 edition of Representative Poetry. One of his personal interests was Victorian Poetry, and in 1953, through his initiative, the Department had brought out a supplement to Representative Poetry with additional poems from that period. He also edited the poems of Robert Browning and co-edited those of Dryden for the 1963 edition.
As Chairman and General Editor of the Collected Works of J.S. Mill from 1959 to 1971, Priestley initiated a 20-volume critical edition that would become the life-work of a younger colleague, John M. Robson. Priestley went on to become President of the Humanities Association of Canada from 1962 to 1964 and to publish an influential report on research in the humanities across Canada. Priestley received honorary degrees from Mount Allison, Alberta, Western Ontario, and Acadia.
He and Helen Sawyer Hogg, the well-known Canadian astronomer, married November 28, 1985. At his death on May 11, 1988, Priestley left a son, Christopher Douglas Craig Priestley.
Shortly after Professor Priestley's death, in an appendix to the second volume of the F. E. L. Priestley Lecture Series, Northrop Frye's Some Reflections on Life and Habit (1988), which was published at the University of Lethbridge Press, A. F. Cassis contributed the following admirable encomium:
F. E. L. Priestley retired in 1972 from his position at University College in the University of Toronto after some fifty years of teaching. Professor Priestley's illustrious teaching career began in a one-room school in Pine Coulee, Stavely, Alberta, in 1921 at the early age of sixteen following his graduation from the Calgary normal school. Though his interests were undoubtedly varied at this age, the young Priestley never doubted his choice of teaching as a career and never wavered in his dedication whether it was as Vice-Principal at Hanna High School, as High School teacher at Red Deer, or as instructor at the University of Alberta and Mount Royal Junior College at Calgary, or as Professor at the University of British Columbia and at University College, Toronto.
With this dedication to teaching, Professor Priestley brought a life-long commitment to learning and research, as the checklist of his publications which follows amply testifies. His insatiable appetite for reading and learning based on a growing conviction that all branches of knowledge complete, correct, and balance each other, earned him recognition at an early age as a young adolescent schoolboy in Lethbridge and also as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta from which he graduated in 1930. True to his vision of the wholeness of knowledge, his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Toronto in 1940 was an edition with commentaries of Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and involved Priestley in the study of History, Philosophy, Political Science and English. Since then, he has written on such diverse figures as Tennyson, Browning, Mill, Pope, Newton, Chaucer, Keats and others. As one of the most widely read people of his generation, he conversed with ease and grace on such wide ranging topics as Psychology, Aesthetic Theory, History, Econonics, Law and Scientific Thought.
Professor Priestley has received numerous honours for his outstanding achievements as teacher and scholar and has been widely recognized for his unrivalled contribution to the welfare of the humanities in Canada. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1952 and of the Royal Society of Literature in 1958. He was appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1958, and was President of the Humanities Association of Canada from 1962 to 1964. He was also chairman of the Editorial Board and General Editor of the Mill Project from 1959 to 1971 and Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Disraeli Project from 1975 to 1978. In 1964, Mount Allison University conferred on him the degree of D. Litt., as did the Universities of Alberta and of Western Ontario in 1973, Acadia University in 1987 and York University in 1988, posthumously. Professor Priestley was a lifetime Honorary Fellow of Huron College, London, Ontario, and life member of the Humanities Association, the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English and the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada.