Bakewell was born in the seaside town of Bournemouth, England, where her parents ran a small hotel. When she was five, the family began travelling through India in a camper and continued to do so for two years before settling in Sydney, Australia. There, her father worked as a bookseller and her mother worked as a librarian. She was educated at Essex University in England, and spent some of her young adulthood working in bookstores.
As a child, she often wrote and she began writing again during her job at the Wellcome Library in London as a curator of early printed books, which she began in the early 1990s. The Smart, her first book, related the story of an 18th-century forgery trial she came across in the Wellcome collection. In 2002, she quit this job to devote more energy to writing. She published The English Dane, the biography of Danish revolutionary and explorer Jorgen Jorgenson, in 2005. In 2010, she published How to Live, a biography of 16th century essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
In her writing, she says she is "a bit reluctant to fit into conventions."
At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, March 2016) is about the existentialist movement and its leaders: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Chatto & Windus, London 2016, ISBN 978-0-701186586
How to Live (Chatto & Windus, 2010; Other Press, 2011) is about the life of 16th century essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. It was reviewed favourably on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2010 the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the Biography category, and the Duff Cooper Prize.
The English Dane (Chatto & Windus, 2005; Vintage, 2006) is about 19th-century Danish adventurer Jorgen Jorgenson, a key player in stirring a revolution in Iceland to break from Denmark’s control.
The Smart (Chatto & Windus, 2001; Vintage, 2002) is about an 18th-century forgery trial she came across while working at the Wellcome Library.