Hensher was born in South London, although he spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in Sheffield, attending Tapton School. He did his undergraduate degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, before attending Cambridge, where he was awarded a PhD for work on 18th century painting and satire. Early in his career he worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, from which he was fired over the content of an interview he gave to a gay magazine. He has published a number of novels, and is a regular contributor, columnist and book reviewer for newspapers and weeklies such as The Guardian, The Spectator, The Mail on Sunday and The Independent.
The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife (1999) brings together 14 of his stories, including "Dead Languages", which A. S. Byatt selected for her Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998), making Hensher the youngest author included in the anthology.
He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. From 2005 to 2012 he taught creative writing at the University of Exeter. He has edited new editions of numerous classic works of English literature, including novels by Charles Dickens and Nancy Mitford. Hensher has also served as a judge for the Booker Prize.
In 2008 Hensher's semi-autobiographical novel The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2012 he won first prize in the German Travel Writers Award and was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. He also won the Stonewall Prize for the Journalist of the Year in 2007 and the Somerset Maugham Award for his novel Kitchen Venom in 1996. In 2013 his novel Scenes from Early Life was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize, and awarded the Ondaatje Prize. It is based on his husband's childhood against the backdrop of the war of independence in Bangladesh. Hensher wrote the libretto for Thomas Adès's opera Powder Her Face (1995) and in 2015 he edited The Penguin Book of the British Short Story.
Hensher's early works of fiction been characterized as having an "ironic, knowing distance from their characters" and "icily precise skewerings of pretension and hypocrisy". His historical novel The Mulberry Empire "echoes with the rhythm and language of folk tales" while "play[ing] games" with narrative forms.
Hensher is married to Zaved Mahmood, a human rights lawyer at the United Nations.
Among Hensher's novels are:
- Other Lulus (1994)
- Kitchen Venom (1996)
- Pleasured (1998)
- The Mulberry Empire (2002) Flamingo/Harper Perennial
- The Fit (2004) 4th Estate/Harper Perennial
- The Northern Clemency (2008) Harper Collins/4th Estate.Shortlisted for Booker Prize.
- King of the Badgers (31 March 2011) 4th Estate ISBN 978-0-00-730133-1
- Scenes from Early Life (12 April 2012) 4th Estate ISBN 978-0007433704. Winner of the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize (2013)
- The Emperor Waltz (3 July 2014) 4th Estate
- The Friendly Ones (8 February 2018) 4th Estate
He has also published two short story collections:
- The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife (1999)
- Tales of Persuasion (2016) 4th Estate ISBN 978-0-00-745963-6
- The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (2012)
- (edited) The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (2015)
- "Birthdays", The Guardian, p. 39, 20 Feb 2014
- "LMH, Oxford - Prominent Alumni". Retrieved 20 May 2015.
- Contemporary British Novelists Nick Rennison p. 65
- The Independent many times. (July 2, 2006), Gay Power: The Pink List. Retrieved 25 June 2007.
- Philip Hensher - The Emperor Waltz cover art and synopsis