Sarah Doudney was born in Portsmouth, England, to a devoutly Protestant family. Her father ran a candle and soap manufacturing business with his brother. She was educated at Madame Dowell's College in Southsea, a school for French girls, and began writing at an early age. Her poem "The Lesson of the Water-Mill," written when she was 15, became a popular song in the UK and USA after it was published in the Churchman's Family Magazine in 1864. She published her first novel, Under Grey Walls, in 1871. Her third book, Archie's Old Desk (1872), made her famous. She also contributed poetry and fiction to secular periodicals such as All the Year Round, Argosy, and Girl's Own Paper. During her career, she produced about 35 novels, mostly aimed at girls, although she also wrote for adult readers. She was also well-known for her church hymns. She never married and lived with her parents in and around Portsmouth until their deaths, when she moved to Oxford.