Harriet Elizabeth Prescott was born in Calais, Maine, on April 3, 1835, the oldest daughter of Joseph Newmarch Prescott and Sarah Bridges. Her father was at various times a merchant, lawyer, local politician, and officeholder, but he never managed to provide financial security for his large family, which included his mother and four sisters and eventually his five children. Nevertheless, the family encouraged young Harriet's active imagination and interest in literature. At the age of fourteen, she moved with her grandmother and an aunt to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she relished the excellent education offered by the Putnam Free School. After graduating in 1852, she attended Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. She had substantially more formal education than most women writers of the period and a family that supported and nourished her literary interests. By the middle of the decade, the entire Prescott family reunited and established themselves in Newburyport, but poor health plagued both her father and her mother. The family faced a devastating financial plight, to which Harriet responded by becoming a writer of sensationalistic and melodramatic fiction.
The "story papers" of Boston were eager for her work, and she may have written hundreds of stories for them, receiving as little as $2.50 or $5.00 per tale. The experience made her into a professional writer who could turn out fiction quickly and prolifically, a habit that would eventually damage her reputation. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as her mentor and later became known as Emily Dickinson's "preceptor," probably encouraged her to develop a richer form of narrative that could be published in more respectable venues. Her big break as a writer came when the Atlantic Monthly accepted "Ina Cellar,"