A great novelist of English provincial life, George Eliot had at the same time the most profound knowledge of European literature and culture of any English writer of her day. Before she began to write the fiction that made her name as George Eliot, Marian Evans had acquired a good knowledge of five European languages, ancient and modern, besides her own, and had already made a significant contribution to Victorian intellectual life as a translator, an editor and a reviewer of works in French, German and Italian as well as English. She had translated David Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus, 1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christenthums (The Essence of Christianity, 1854), and also Baruch Spinoza's Ethica (Ethics), although that translation was not published in her lifetime. She had been the effective editor of the Westminster Review from late 1851 to April 1854 and had written substantial review articles over a wide field for that and other serious journals.
When her fiction began to appear, contemporary reviewers had no hesitation in relating it to the wider context of the European novel. Richard Simpson, reviewing her career as a novelist up to 1863, saw its guiding principles to be derived from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832); Edith Simcox in a review of Middlemarch described it as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’, and George Eliot's first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand (1804–76), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Gustave Flaubert (1821–80).