Born Frances Eliza Hodgson in Manchester, England, she emigrated to the United States after the death of her father in 1854. In 1868 Hodgson had a story published in Godey's Lady's Book. Soon after she was being published regularly in Godey's, Scribner's Monthly, Peterson's Ladies' Magazine and Harper's Bazaar. Her main writing talent was combining realistic detail of working-class life with a romantic plot.
After moving with her husband to Washington, D.C., Burnett wrote the novels Haworth's (1879), Louisiana (1880), A Fair Barbarian (1881), and Through One Administration (1883), as well as a play, Esmeralda (1881), written with William Gillette.
In 1886 she published Little Lord Fauntleroy. It was originally intended as a children's book, but had a great appeal to mothers. It created a fashion of long curls (based on her son Vivian's) and velvet suits with lace collars (based on Oscar Wilde's attire). The book sold more than half a million copies. In 1888 she won a lawsuit in England over the dramatic rights to Little Lord Fauntleroy, establishing a precedent that was incorporated into British copyright law in 1911.
In 1898 she divorced Dr. Burnett. She later re-married, this time to Stephen Townsend (1900).
Her later works include Sara Crewe (1888) - later rewritten as A Little Princess (1905); The Lady of Quality (1896) - considered one of the best of her plays; and The Secret Garden (1909) - for which she is probably best known today.
After her first son's death, Burnett delved into spiritualism and apparently found this a great comfort in dealing with her grief. During World War I, Burnett put her beliefs about what happens after death into writing with the novella: The White People.
Frances Hodgson Burnett died in Plandome, New York