Born on 15 October 1753 at Stanningfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Elizabeth was the eighth of the nine children of John Simpson (died 1761), a farmer, and his wife Mary, née Rushbrook. The family, like several others in the neighbourhood was Roman Catholic. Unlike her brother, who was sent to school, Elizabeth was educated with her sisters at home. Elizabeth suffered from a speech impediment.
Determined to act at a young age, Elizabeth worked hard to try to overcome her stammer, but her family discouraged her attempt in early 1770 to get an engagement at the Norwich Theatre. That same year her brother George became in actor. In April 1772, at the age of 18, Elizabeth went to London without permission to become an actress. Her stammer affected her performance and many audience members did not enjoy watching her on stage because of her speech impediment. Young and alone, she was apparently the victim of sexual harassment. Two months later, in June, she agreed to marry a fellow Catholic, the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735–1779), possibly at least partially for protection. Joseph at the time was not a well-known actor, was twice Elizabeth's age, and had two illegitimate sons. Elizabeth and Joseph did not have children together. The marriage was reported to have had difficulties. Elizabeth and Joseph appeared on the stage together for the first time on September 4, 1772 in Shakepeare's King Lear. In October 1772, the couple toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company, a demanding life for nearly four years. In 1776, the couple made a move to France, where Joseph went to learn to paint and Elizabeth went to study the French language. In only one month, the couple became penniless. They moved to Liverpool and Inchbald met actors Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom became important friends after joining Joseph Younger's company. The Inchbalds subsequently moved to Canterbury and Yorkshire. In 1777, the couple was then hired by Tate Wilkinson's company.
After Joseph Inchbald's unexpected death in June 1779, Inchbald continued to act for several years, in Dublin, London, and elsewhere. She quarrelled publicly with Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, when Wollstonecraft's marriage to William Godwin made it clear that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of her elder daughter Fanny. This was deeply resented by Godwin. Her acting career, while only moderately successful, spanned 17 years and she appeared in many classical roles, as well as in new plays such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem.
Due to success as a playwright, Inchbald did not need the financial support of a husband and did not remarry. Between 1784 and 1805 she had 19 of her comedies, sentimental dramas, and farces (many of them translations from the French) performed at London theatres. Her first play to be performed was A Mogul Tale, in which she played the leading feminine role of Selina. In 1780, she joined the Covent Garden Company and played a breeches role in Philaster as Bellarion. Inchbald had a few of her plays produced such as Appearance is Against Them (1785), Such Things Are (1787), and Everyone Has Fault (1793). Some of her other plays such as A Mogul Tale (1784) and I'll Tell You What (1785) were produced at the Haymarket Theatre. Eighteen of her plays were published, though she wrote several more; the exact number is in dispute though most recent commentators claim between 21 and 23. Her two novels have been frequently reprinted. She also did considerable editorial and critical work. Her literary start began with writing for The Artist and Edinburgh Review. A four-volume autobiography was destroyed before her death upon the advice of her confessor, but she left some of her diaries. The latter are currently held at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an edition was recently published.
Her play Lovers' Vows (1798) was featured by Jane Austen in her novel Mansfield Park.
After her success, she felt she needed to give something back to London society, and decided in 1805 to try being a theatre critic.
A political radical and friend of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, her political beliefs can more easily be found in her novels than in her plays, due to the constrictive environment of the patent theatres of Georgian London. "Inchbald's life was marked by tensions between, on the one hand, political radicalism, a passionate nature evidently attracted to a number of her admirers, and a love of independence, and on the other hand, a desire for social respectability and a strong sense of the emotional attraction of authority figures." She died on 1 August 1821 in Kensington. On her gravestone it states, "Whose writings will be cherished while truth, simplicity, and feelings, command public admiration." In 1833, a two-volume Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald by James Boaden was published by Richard Bentley.
In recent decades Inchbald has been the subject of increasing critical interest, particularly among scholars investigating women's writing.
The reception history of Elizabeth Inchbald is the story of an unknown actress who became a celebrated playwright and author. As an actress, who at the start of her career was overshadowed by her husband, Inchbald was determined to prove herself to the acting community. Some scholars recognized this describing her as "richly textured with strands of resistance, boldness, and libidinal thrills”. A very important aspect of Inchbald's reception history is her workplace and professional reputation. Around the theatre she was known for upholding high moral standards. Inchbald described having to defend herself from the sexual advvances brought on by stage manager James Dodd and theatre manager John Taylor.
Her writing history began with various plays that Inchbald soon earned a reputation for publishing in times of political scandal. One of the things that separated Inchbald from her competitors at the time was her ability to translate plays from German and French into English works of art. These translations were popular with the public due to Inchbald's ability to make characters in her writings come to life. The majority of what she translated consisted of farces that received positive feedback from her reading audience. Over the next twenty years, she translated a couple of successful pieces a year, one of these was the very successful play, Lovers' Vows. In this translation of August von Kotzebues original piece, Inchbald gained complements from Jane Austen, who put the translation in her popular book, Mansfield Park. Although Austen’s book brought more fame to Inchbald, Lovers' Vows ran for forty-two nights when it was originally performed in 1798. Not only were her plays well liked, but her famous novel A Simple Story always received praise. Terry Castle once referred to it as "the most elegant English fiction of the eighteenth century”. As she ended her career and decided to start critiquing in the theatre, the popularity level she had with her fellow critics was very low. They believed that Inchbald was ignorant of Shakespearian literature and expressed this often.