to define representative types of characters, often nationally or culturally differentiated. Her work frequently focuses on females, addressing their ethical and personal choices in the context of their dual imperative to develop as individuals and represent moral ideas. Duncan thus creates a kind of heroine who defines herself through love, travel, and artistic vocation, and whose gender politics is linked to a critique of imperial-colonial relations.
Born Sara Janet Duncan on 22 December 1861 at 96 West Street, Brantford, Canada West (now Ontario), she was the oldest daughter of Charles Duncan, a well-off Scottish immigrant who worked as a dry goods and furniture merchant, and his wife, Jane (née Bell), who was Canada-born of Irish descent. She trained as a Teacher at Brantford Model School and Toronto Normal School, but always had an eye on a literary career. She had poetry printed as early as 1880, two years before she fully qualified as a Teacher. A period of supply teaching in the Brantford area ended in December 1884, when she travelled to New Orleans after persuading The Globe newspaper in Toronto and the Advertiser in London, Ontario to pay her for articles about the World Cotton Centennial. Her articles were published under the pseudonym "Garth" and reprinted in other newspapers. They led The Globe to offer her a regular weekly column when she returned to Canada some months later.
Duncan wrote her "Other People and I" column for The Globe during the summer of 1885 using the name "Garth Grafton". She then moved to the Washington Post in Washington D. C., where she was soon put in charge of the current literature department. She was back as "Garth Grafton" at The Globe in summer 1886, taking over the "Woman's World" section that had emerged. As in Washington, she contributed more generally as a member of the editorial staff. While the "Woman's World" column was fairly light in tone, she also wrote a more serious column for Week, a Toronto-based literary periodical, using the names "Jeannette Duncan" and "Sara Jeannette Duncan". Her biographer, Misao Dean, says that "well-suited to the Week, her strongly defined progressive views on international copyright, women's suffrage, and realist fiction made her work remarkable in such conservative journals as the Globe and the Post."
Duncan's first book was her most successful; "cheerfully anecdotal", says Warkentin, and "written with flair and self-conscious charm; it was written to sell, and sell it did." Titled A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Around The World by Ourselves, it was published in 1890 and fictionalized her around-the-world trip with Lewis. It contains the first description of the city of Vancouver in fiction. According to Dean, the book "relies on the strengths of Duncan's journalism – close observation, description of manners, and wry humour – while transforming the narrator's travelling companion from the sophisticated Lewis into a naive and romantic English girl." Her next two novels, An American Girl in London (1891) and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893) followed a similar pattern, but then came A Daughter of To-day (1894), described by Dean as her first "serious novel" and by Warkentin as a "new woman" work that is "flawed but fascinating". It was with this fourth book that she took to using both her married and maiden name.
After her marriage, Duncan split her time mostly between England and India, often spending much of it alone in rented flats in Kensington, London. The travelling was necessitated by her continued writing commitments in several countries. There had been plans for her and Everard to return permanently to England in 1894, but these came to nothing: her husband reinvented himself as a Journalist and edited the Calcutta-based Indian Daily News in 1894–97, later becoming managing Director of the Eastern News Agency. Although Marian Fowler, a biographer, argued that the couple's marriage was unhappy, hers is not the accepted view. Duncan certainly supported her husband in various work-related endeavours. She also cultivated a friendship with James Louis Garvin while he was Editor of The Outlook and The Observer, at least in part hoping he might find a position for Everard in Britain. Warkentin suggests that theirs may have been "one of those marriages in which a difficult woman and a gentle, agreeable man made Common cause".
A Voyage of Consolation (1897) was a sequel to internationally themed An American Girl in London. The autobiographical On the Other Side of the Latch (1901) was set in Duncan's garden in Simla, where she had been forced to spend seven months while recovering from her tuberculosis infection. Warkentin sees this work as an Example of her eye for a commercial opportunity.
Duncan occasionally strayed from the subject of Anglo-Indian society and is best-known and most studied today for The Imperialist, a 1904 work which was her only novel set in Canada and centers on a fictional town modeled on Brantford. It had at best a mixed reception: Germaine Warkentin says that despite being "the first truly modern Canadian novel", it was too progressive for its audience, poorly received and remained largely unread until the 1960s. Nowadays, it is the most popular of her works and the remainder, once generally much more popular, are read mainly as a means of contextualizing it. Dean says that at the time of publication
Cousin Cinderella (1908) is set in London, and with His Royal Happiness (1914) constitutes the other work by Duncan that has significant Canadian themes, although neither is set in Canada. While not studied to the extent of The Imperialist, Cousin Cinderella is considered by Anna Snaith to be an important work:
Sometimes she lived at Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj. There she entertained E. M. Forster in 1912. He noted a characteristic ambivalence in her manner, saying that she was "clever and odd – [at times very (crossed out)] nice to talk to alone, but at times the Social Manner descended like a pall."
His Royal Happiness was adapted for the stage in 1915.
Around the time of World War I, during which Duncan and her husband were unable to be together, she began to take an interest in writing plays, but had little success. She maintained her interest until 1921, two years after her husband had finally left India and the couple had taken residence in Chelsea.
Duncan had been treated for tuberculosis in 1900. Childless, she died of chronic lung disease on 22 July 1922 at Ashtead, Surrey, whence she and her husband had moved in 1921. She had been a smoker and it is possible that the cause of death was emphysema, although her lung problems generally may have been exacerbated by the climate and sanitation in Calcutta. She was buried at St Giles's Church, Ashtead, and left a CAD$13,000 estate. Though she rarely returned to Canada after marrying Cotes, and last visited in 1919, she had always insisted that the royalties from her books were paid into her bank account in Brantford. Everard Cotes, who was her beneficiary and worked as parliamentary correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, outlived her and remarried in 1923, fathering two children before his death in 1944.
Some later books – notably Set in Authority (1906), written in particularly ironic style, and The Burnt Offering (1909) – took as their theme the subject of Indian nationalism. In these she was able to draw on the similarities of experience between her colonised homeland and her colonised adopted land. Set in Authority, which was titled The Viceroy until very near to publication, stands out as a notable failure in her commercial sense and an act perhaps of stubbornness, being an overtly political novel published immediately after the poor reception of The Imperialist, which itself had been a novel about politics. Its central character, Anthony Andover, is now known to have been based on Lord Curzon, who was unpopular with Anglo-Indians.