She was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, as the second daughter of the advocate and novelist John F. Drabble and the teacher Kathleen Marie, née Bloor. Her older sister Antonia Susan was to become 1990's Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt. After attending the Quaker boarding-school Mount school at York where her mother was employed she received a major scholarship for Newnham College, Cambridge. She studied English and was awarded double honours (special courses for reaching a high distinction in a university degree).
In 1960 she married the actor Clive Swift and briefly joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. During the sixties, her three children were born. In 1963, her first novel A Midsummer Bird Cage was published by Weidenfeld&Nicholson, her main publisher until the late 1980s. Her third novel, The Millstone, published in 1966, brought her the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize.
In 1975 she divorced her husband. In 1980 she was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1982 she married the writer and biographer Michael Holroyd. Together with him, she now lives in London and Somerset.
Though famous for her novels, Drabble also wrote several screenplays, plays, short stories, and some biographies as well as non-fiction books such as A writer's Britain. Landscape and Literature. She wrote comments on several literary classics and took on the editorship of the Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1987 and in 2000.
A theme of her novels is the correlation between contemporary England's society and its individual members. Her characters' tragical faults reflect the political and economical situation and the restrictiveness of conservative surroundings, making the reader aware of the dark spots of a seemingly wealthy country. Her protagonists are mostly women. The realistic portrayal of her figures often relates to Drabble's personal experiences. Thus, her first novels describe the life of young women, whilst during the late sixties and seventies, the conflict between motherhood and intellectual challenges is brought into focus. 1998's The Witch of Exmoor finally shows the withdrawn existence of an old author. Though inspired by her own life, her works are not mainly autobiographical. Fictional conflicts of everyday life such as unwanted pregnancy in The Millstone are not shown in a melodramatic and compassionate manner but with the ironical and witty touch of dry British humour. Her syntax remarks among other features a subtle and unexpected use of tenses.