There are plenty of novels, award-winning and some less so, that feature much-loved 19th-century writers as characters.

But the same ones tend to crop up time after time: Jane Austen is a perennial favourite, as are the Brontes, Charles Dickens and Henry James. But few tackle the great George Eliot, in spite of her superb fictional possibilities. Is she just too tricky to get right, too tempting to caricature, with her "massive jaw", her "long, thin countenance", her great forehead?

If she is, then Patricia Duncker has been more daring than most, in seeking to capture the woman known as 'the Sibyl', and her daring has paid off superbly. Her novel revolves around one of Eliot's real-life German publishers, Max Duncker (to whom Duncker herself may or may not be related), in the last few years of Eliot's life. Max is in awe of 'the Sibyl', as is Sophie von Hahn, a young woman he hasn't seen since childhood, but who has now grown up into a beautiful, intelligent and headstrong individual. Much like, in fact, the heroines Eliot herself is best known for portraying in her books.

The interweaving of art and life continues from this point, with interruptions from our modern-day narrator who reminds us that Eliot likes nothing better than to punish her beautiful, intelligent and headstrong heroines (how many of us can ever forgive her for drowning Maggie Tulliver at the end of The Mill On The Floss?). And so, it seems, Sophie is to be punished. Max woos her, initially with more thoughts of acquiring her fortune, but eventually because he genuinely falls for her. Sophie, however, has doubts about the institution of marriage itself and how it will constrain her, and so she writes to her great idol, 'the Sibyl herself', to ask for her advice.

Eliot, though, shows this letter to Max, who feels both horrified and betrayed by it. Is 'the Sibyl' trying to cause trouble between the young couple? If so, it works: the two part for a time. Sophie has already been diminished in Max's eyes: earlier in the story, she gambled away a valuable necklace of her mother's in order to buy horses; it is 'the Sibyl' who pays her debts and returns the necklace to her, although only Max knows this. Max declares himself to Eliot in an embarrassing scene, where she can only reject his advances.

The couple reunites, in spite of all of this, and are married. But Sophie finds out that 'the Sibyl' paid her debts, and in the most unpleasant way possible: the early chapters of Eliot's new novel, Daniel Deronda, are published, showing vain, foolish Gwendoline Harlech gambling just as Sophie did. Duncker isn't just warning us about the dangers of allowing novelists into our lives, where the best of them will appropriate our own stories for themselves (Henry James confessed to doing this all the time). She's also showing us the puncturing of innocence by experience.

In this way, she prevents her own novel becoming simply a tale beloved by literary fans, stops it being too self-reflexive, too much of an in-joke for those who know Eliot's novels inside and out. She strikes just the right playful tone and makes fun of learning, too, as Sophie, Max and Eliot all vie for who knows the works of the ancient philosopher Lucian the best, who owns him. For ultimately, this tale is all about ownership, and what Duncker shows with an expert hand is that nobody owns anything. Readers don't own their favourite writers even if they think they do. Writers don't own their own images of themselves, much as they may try to control them. And perhaps most importantly, stories aren't owned by anyone. On the contrary, literature subverts the very notion of ownership; it slips out of our grasp just when we think we have secured it.

Some will still find Duncker's historical exercise in love and literature just that little bit too literary, too cold, too academic perhaps. Those who love their 19th-century novelists and the games they played in their own fiction, however, will delight in a clever, thoughtful, witty story that makes demands on us while making more than a few jokes too.