Dora Greenwell was born on the family estate near Lanchester in County Durham. Her father was a magistrate and a deputy lieutenant of the county and she had four brothers, two of whom entered the Church of England. She was taught by a governess for five years, after which she applied herself assiduously to the study of religion, philosophy and languages.The family fell on hard times and were obliged to sell their property in 1848, whereafter they moved to Ovingham Rectory where her eldest brother William was taking care of the living for a friend. While there, in addition to teaching local girls, she published her first volume of poems followed by a second one, Stories That Might Be True in 1850.
She later lived with another brother, Alan, at Golborne Rectory in Lancashire but when her father died in 1854 she moved back to Durham with her mother. Her major success came in the 1860’s with two further volumes of poetry and a collection of poems for children. She also became an accomplished essayist on spiritual and social issues and in 1867 wrote a biography of the French priest Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, who reestablished the Dominican order in post-Revolutionary France.and in 1871 a brief memoir of the itinerant Quaker preacher, John Woolman.
Her mother died in 1871 and Dora moved to London three years later. In addition to the seven volumes of poetry she had published between 1848 and 1876, she wrote several prose works expressing her deep religious beliefs including A Present Heaven and Colloquia Crucis. Her poetry which largely, but not exclusively, encompasses religious themes, is well crafted and is characterised by its power, simplicity and a passionate throb of devotion. One of her most famous poems, I Am Not Skilled to Understand, was set to music as a hymn.
In poor health following an accident, she went to live with her brother Alan in Clifton, Bristol in 1881 and died the following year, aged 70. As a true practical Christian she was a great espouser of benevolent and humanitarian causes throughout her life and was a champion of women’s suffrage and education, the welfare of the poor, proper care for the mentally handicapped and the abolition of the slave trade. Although devout and spiritually-minded, she was a sociable, outgoing woman and a friend of fellow poets Christina Rosetti and Jean Ingelow.