Brenda McKay grew up in Swaziland and South Africa. Her undergraduate degree was secured at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Subsequently she emigrated to the United Kingdom, where she earned an M.A. in Victorian Studies (cum laude) and a Ph.D in Victorian Literature and Science, both at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her degrees are primarily in Classical Culture and English Literature.
She has taught at Wits University in South Africa, Birkbeck College, London, and Hertfordshire University.
She has written widely on Victorian Culture and Science. Her subjects have included George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, W.M Thackeray, as well as the 19th-century scientists Charles Darwin and A.R. Wallace, and the social philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Her monograph, George Eliot and Victorian Attitudes to racial Diversity (2003) was honoured by CHOICE as an outstanding academic work of the year.
She reviews new books regularly for The George Eliot Review.