She has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, but has never won it. In spite of this, she has been described as one of the greatest living British novelists.
Born in Liverpool, educated at Merchant Taylors' School, she spent her early years working as an actress, leaving the theatre to have her first child. Her first novel, Harriet Said... was written at this time, it was to be her third published novel, having been rejected by several publishers who found it "repulsive", and "indecent". It was published after Another Part of the Wood (1968) and An Awfully Big Adventure (1970).
Her early novels are retellings of her life, such as An Awfully Big Adventure which is set in provincial theatre and was adapated as a film by Mike Newell in 1995, starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. She later turned to her family's history, and after that historial novels, such as Master Georgie set in the Crimean War.
Her most recent novel, According to Queeney is a fictionalized account of the last years of the life of Samuel Johnson, and received wide acclaim.