Originally spelt Sarah Maitland, she was the second of six children to an upper-class London family, which she has described as "very open and noisy". In her childhood she went to school in a small Wiltshire town and attended a girls' boarding school from age twelve until her admission to university. Maitland thought this school a terrible place and became very excitable.
Growing up, Maitland developed a wild reputation: in 1966 she scandalised one of her brothers by winning a foot race in a very short cotton dress. On entering Oxford University in 1968 to study English, she shared a house with future US President Bill Clinton and suffered from problems of mental disarray and inability to carry out routine tasks. During her college years, Maitland was taken to a mental hospital on several occasions for this reason, but she completed her course and soon turned to writing.
Maitland became regarded as one of those at the vanguard of the 1970s feminist movement and is often described as a feminist writer. Religion is another theme in much of her work: from 1972 to 1993 she was married to an Anglican vicar. In 1993 she became a Roman Catholic.. In 1995 she worked with Stanley Kubrick on the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
She has two grown-up children. Polly Lee is an aspiring actress and Adam Lee is beginning a career as a photographer. Since Adam left college, Maitland has moved towards a solitary, prayerful life in a variety of locations, first of all on the Isle of Skye and ultimately in her present house in Galloway. She says today that she wants to avoid most of the comforts of life, especially those that intrude into her quest for silence such as mobile phones, radio, television and even her son. She has described these changes in her life and the experiences leading to them in the autobiographical "A Book of Silence".
Maitland's 2003 collection of short stories, On Becoming a Fairy Godmother, is a fictional celebration of the menopausal woman, whilst the title story of 2008's Far North was originally published as "True North" in her first collection Telling Tales and was made into a film of the same title in 2007. The rest of Far North collects dark mythological tales from around the world.