Mary Crawford Fraser was born in Rome, Italy, the daughter of a talented American family. Her father was Thomas Crawford, the sculptor, and her mother was Louisa Ward, a sister of Julia Ward Howe. Mary's brother Francis Marion Crawford also became a writer. Their father died when she was young, and she was raised in Italy, England, and New Jersey. Through her family, she met many artists and writers such as Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Browning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edward Lear. She was educated at a girls' boarding school run by the sisters Ellen and Elizabeth Sewell on the Isle of Wight. In 1874, she married Hugh Fraser, a British diplomat, and accompanied him to his postings in Peking, Vienna, Rome, and Santiago. While in Rome, she converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
In 1889, her husband was appointed head of the British Legation in Japan and they moved to Tokyo. He suddenly after a brief illness in 1894. Mary returned to Europe, and her brother helped her to become an author beginning with the novel The Brown Ambassador (1895). Her other works, many published under her married name of Mrs. Hugh Fraser, included Palladia (1896), The Looms of Time (1898), The Stolen Emperor (1904), and The Satanist (1912), written with her son John Crawford Fraser. Her weekly letters to family and friends from Tokyo became the basis for her memoir A Diplomatist's Wife in Japan (1898).