Paula was born in Birkenhead in 1967, the third daughter in a large working-class Catholic family. She studied at the University of Liverpool and now lives in Oxford with her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Sir Jonathan Bate, and their three children (Tom, Ellie and Harry). She is founder and Chief Executive of ReLit, the charity for literature and mental health. Paula is represented by The Wylie Agency.
Her most recent book is a biography of Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s favourite sister, who married the heir to Chatsworth House before her early, tragic death. Before this, Paula wrote the tie-in book to the award-winning movie, Belle, in which she told the true story of the black slave girl who was brought up by the Lord Chief Justice of England in the years leading up to the abolition of the slave trade.
In January 2013, to coincide with the bicentenary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice, she published an innovative biography called The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. It was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Her previous book, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, told the story of Evelyn Waugh’s friendship with the extraordinary aristocratic family who inspired Brideshead Revisited. It was also a Sunday Times top ten bestseller and in the USA it was serialized in Vanity Fair.
Paula’s first top ten bestseller was Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson. A selection for the 2005 Richard and Judy Book Club and a British Book Awards ‘Best Read’ nomination, it was also long-listed for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize. The book tells the extraordinary story of the eighteenth-century actress, poet, novelist, feminist, celebrity and royal mistress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson (1757-1800). Paula’s first book, shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize, was Jane Austen and the Theatre, published in 2002 and reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury. Paul Johnson of The Spectator chose it as his best-ever book on Jane Austen and the Times Literary Supplement described it as a ‘definitive and pioneering study of a wholly neglected aspect of Austen’s art.’
Paula has also edited a Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Jane Austen’s Emma and is a regular reviewer for the Saturday Times.