She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, Scotland, and educated at Gillespie's School for Girls. In 1938, she married, and worked in intelligence during the Second World War. She began writing seriously after the war, under her married name, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. In 1947, she became editor of the Poetry Review. Her first novel was published in 1957, but it was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962) which established her reputation.