Her childhood was spent at Lasswade (near Dalkeith), Glasgow and Liverpool. As a girl she constantly occupied herself with literary experiments, and in 1849 published her first novel Passages in the Life of Mrs Margaret Maitland. It dealt with the Scottish Free Church movement, with which Mr and Mrs Wilson both sympathized, and had some success. This she followed up in 1851 with Caleb Field, and in the same year met Major William Blackwood in Edinburgh, and was invited by him to contribute to the famous Blackwood's Magazine. The connection thus early commenced lasted during her whole lifetime, and she contributed considerably more than 100 articles to its pages, such as a critique of the character of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.
In May 1852 she married her cousin, Frank Wilson Oliphant, at Birkenhead, and settled at Harrington Square, in London. Her husband was an artist, principally in stained glass. He had very delicate health, and two of their children died in infancy, while the father himself developed alarming symptoms of consumption. For the sake of his health they moved in January 1859 to Florence, and thence to Rome, where Frank Oliphant died. His wife, left almost entirely without resources, returned to England and took up the burden of supporting her three children by her own literary activity.
She had now become a popular writer, and worked with amazing industry to sustain her position. Unfortunately, her home life was full of sorrow and disappointment. In January 1864 her only daughter died in Rome, and was buried in her father's grave. Her brother, who had emigrated to Canada, was shortly afterwards involved in financial ruin, and Mrs Oliphant offered a home to him and his children, and added their support to her already heavy responsibilities.
In 1866 she settled at Windsor to be near her sons who were being educated at Eton. This was her home for the rest of her life, and for more than thirty years she pursued a varied literary career with courage scarcely broken by a series of the gravest troubles. The ambitions she cherished for her sons were unfulfilled. Cyril Francis, the elder, died in 1890, leaving a Life of Alfred de Musset, incorporated in his mother's Foreign Classics for English Readers, The younger, Frank, collaborated with her in the Victorian Age of English Literature and won a position at the British Museum, but was rejected by the doctors. He died in 1894. With the last of her children lost to her, she had but little further interest in life. Her health steadily declined, and she died at Wimbledon, London, on 25 June 1897.
In the 1880s she was the literary mentor of the Irish novelist Emily Lawless.
In the course of her long struggle with circumstances, Mrs Oliphant produced more than 120 separate works, including novels, books of travel and description, histories and volumes of literary criticism. Among the best known of her works of fiction are:
Her biographies of Edward Irving (1862) and her cousin Laurence Oliphant (1892), together with her life of Sheridan in the English Men of Letters (1883), have vivacity and a sympathetic touch. She also wrote a biography of the Scottish theologian John Tulloch.
She also wrote historical and critical works of considerable variety, including:
At the time of her death she was still occupied upon Annals of a Publishing House, a record of the progress and achievement of the firm of Blackwood, with which she had been so long and honourably connected.
Her Autobiography and Letters, which present a touching picture of her domestic anxieties, appeared in 1899.