Haasse has the first Dutch digital online museum dedicated to the life and work of an author. The museum was opened in 2008 on her 90th birthday.
Haasse has an asteroid named after her.
Hélène Serafia Haasse was born on 2 February 1918 in Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She was the daughter of civil servant and author Willem Hendrik Haasse (1889–1955) and concert pianist Katharina Diehm Winzenhöhler (1893–1983). She had a brother Wim who was born in 1921. The Haasse family was not very religious.
Before Haasse's first birthday, the family moved from Batavia to Buitenzorg (Bogor), because her mother's health would benefit from the milder climate. In 1920, the family moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where her father got a temporary job at the city hall. In 1922, the family moved back to the Indies to Soerabaja (Surabaya). Here Haasse went to kindergarten and later to a Catholic primary school, because this was the nearest school. When her mother became ill and went to a sanatory in Davos, Haasse was first sent to her maternal grandparents in Heemstede and then her paternal grandparents in Baarn, and she later stayed at a boarding school in Baarn. In 1928, her mother was recovered and all family members moved back to the Indies to Bandoeng (Bandung).
In 1930, the Haasse family moved again to Buitenzorg, and a year later again to Batavia. Here she went to the secondary school Bataviaas Lyceum, where Haasse became an active member of the literary club Elcee. In 1935, the family visited the Netherlands, after which Haasse became aware of differences between the Dutch and East Indian society. Haasse graduated from the Lyceum in 1938.
Haasse then moved to the Netherlands to study Dutch. She quickly abandoned this plan, and studied Scandinavian language and literature at the University of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, she joined a student theater group and met her future husband Jan van Lelyveld, who invited her to become an editor for the satirical magazine Propria Cures in 1940.
An important segment of her literary work consists of Dutch Indies literature. Her debut Oeroeg (1948), is set in the Dutch East Indies, where Haasse was born and lived for most of the first 20 years of her life. Even more autobiographical texts and books about her life in the East Indies, includes books such as The East Indies continued to play an important part in her work: Krassen op een rots (1970) and her last novel Sleuteloog (2002), which has the same theme as Oeroeg: is a friendship between a Dutch colonial and an Indonesian child possible and can they really understand each other?
This Oeroeg was well received and often reprinted, but did experience some controversy due to the critical reception by the older author Tjalie Robinson. The Indo (Eurasian) Tjalie Robinson pointed out why he did not find the characters in the story credible. Moreover, as Tjalie Robinson himself was still living in the Dutch East Indies at that time, hoping for and working towards fraternization between the Dutch and Indonesians his sharp criticism was directed against what he considered the defeatist nature of the book.
The movie Oeroeg based on the book premiered in 1993.
Her internationally acclaimed "Heren van de Thee" was translated to 'The Tea Lords' in 2010. It is a colonial historical novel set in the Dutch East Indies of the 19th and 20th century, based on family archives of the heirs and relations of the tea plantation owners featuring in the book.
Her great commercial success and critical acclaim is reflected in the numerous prizes she has been awarded over the years. She has won prizes for both her first novel in 1948 as well as her last novel in 2003. Prestigious awards for her entire oeuvre up to that time include the Constantijn Huygens Prize in 1981 and the P. C. Hooft Award in 1984. Various other prizes include the ‘’Annie Romein Prize’’and the ‘’Dirk Martens Prize’’. She has also won the ‘’Prize of the Public of the NS’’ twice and is the only author who has written the prestigious annual "Boekenweekgeschenk" thrice, in 1948, 1959 and 1994 respectively.
Haasse lived in France for many years (1981–1990), and much of her work has been translated into French. The '‘Académie Française’' awarded Haasse the Diplôme de médaille Argent in 1984. The next year she delivered a presentation on colonial literature at the University of Dakar. She was awarded the Officier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d'Honneur in 2000.
Haasse received an honorary literary doctorate from the University of Utrecht in 1988 and from the Belgian University of Leuven in 1995. In 1987 she had already been given an honorary membership of the Belgian Royal Literary Academy (Belgische Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde (KANTL)) in Gent.
The Chilean Ministry of Education (‘El Ministerio de education de Chile') awarded her a prize for her “universal contribution to culture” in 1996.
In 1989 the city of Boston awarded her the 'Boston Certificate of Recognition', for her book ″In a Dark Wood Wandering″: “In recognition and appreciation of your outstanding contributions to the City of Boston and its residents.”
In 1992 Haasse attended the opening of the IKAPI 'International Book Fair' in Jakarta. It was the last time she would visit her birthplace, Java, and the year her Dutch Indies literature masterpiece Heren van de Thee was published.