George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, began writing novels under the influence of Jane Austen. Eliot broadened and deepened the novel of manners popularized by Austen by examining the philosophy and motives of her characters in a compassionate, not merely satirical, way. Eliot likened herself to both a historian and a scientist. In her novels she attempted to study and reveal the ways that events and character intertwine to determine a given outcome. As such, she is compared to Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, and she has been called the greatest English realist (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., 1355).
Her insights on contemporary issues of her day, particularly on "The Woman Question," contributed to society's understanding of controversial subjects. Although in some ways she could be considered a feminist writer, she also put great stock in traditional values; her strong female characters often show a commitment to doing their duty, often at the expense of their own desires. Eliot claimed, "My function is that of the aesthetic not the doctrinal teacher." By entering into the deep psychological motivations of her characters, she was able to inspire her readers, not lecture them.
One should not forget that Eliot's contribution to the English novel involves not only her own novels, but also her literary criticism. As an editor at the Westminster Review, a literary journal, she published incisive commentary about contemporary writers, notably "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." In that essay, Eliot exposes with wit and wisdom the inferior attempts at novel writing that plagued the marketplace of her day. Reading the piece now, one is astounded at how true it rings today and at what excellent guidance it gives to both readers and writers regarding what constitutes quality fiction.