Jane Austen by David Nokes Fourth Estate, pounds 20 Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin Viking, pounds 20; Two new lives show England's best-loved novelist in vividly contrasting lights. Fay Weldon feasts happily on both
This is not a competition, though if two lives of Jane Austen appear within weeks of one another, one could be forgiven for thinking so. Both books cover more or less the same new ground, dwelling on the extraordinary nature of the Austen family, beset as it was by scandal and drama, and the very un-Englishness - if we associate Englishness, that is, with stability and gentility, not perfidy - of England's Jane.

The one book supplements the other. Read both. As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, as the saying went; when the hungry labourer faced the same penalty for stealing either, hanging or transportation, why then not steal the sheep and feed the family well? Or steal both and fare marvellously? To read both books is to feed stupendously.

Nokes's Jane Austen is the sheep, sinewy and tough: it is all gusto, wariness and reappraisal. Hot flavoured. Tomalin's life is the lamb, sweet, tender, slimmer, sober and thoughtful: the taste is more delicate. The first is a brave man's book, stuffed with the things biographers are, I believe, not supposed to do, putting thoughts into his subjects' heads, words in their mouths. But as David Nokes was the dramatist on the recent TV versions of Clarissa and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, why should he not? He knows his period, his people: he does it so very well. His book is scholarly enough, carefully and well researched, and thanks are given to that excellent and amiable Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye, which is good enough for me. But then Miss Le Faye is also thanked in the Tomalin book. I wonder if Miss Le Faye, too, was torn? Nokes says, "Though I am conscious that Miss Le Faye will not always agree with the conclusions I have drawn in this biography, I trust that even disagreements, perhaps especially disagreements, may be more illuminating in the study of Jane Austen's elusive personality." Lordy me, what went on?

The Tomalin Jane Austen is a woman's book. Tomalin cares about things Nokes doesn't. She broods on the trauma of childhood experience on the young writer's psyche. The infant Jane was handed over to a village woman at 14 weeks and taken back in the second year. "The idea that this was an exile or an abandonment would not have occurred to Mrs Austen," writes Claire Tomalin, ever forgiving, and goes on to add, convincingly enough, that "the most striking aspect of Jane's adult life letters is their defensiveness... You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced by the hard shell: and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends."

This sort of therapistic approach is not for Nokes. He's more taken by the fact that Mrs Austen, "sending her babies away to breed a healthy independence" in the early years of her marriage, wore as her daytime costume the remnants of the red woollen riding-suit she'd worn to her wedding. Nokes does not lead or interpret, he presents and dramatises: he is, I fancy, more interested in the family than in the writer, in the writer than in the books. In the Tomalin Jane Austen, the emphasis is the other way round: she is interested in the books, the writer and the family, in that order, which I daresay is the emphasis Miss Le Faye, for one, would prefer. But Lordy me, one is obliged to declare, striking the brow with the hand, what fun the Nokes book is.

Nokes is determined that Father Austen's married sister, Philadelphia, had an affair with Hastings of India, a liaison of which Jane's cousin Eliza was born: to the extent of referring always to "Eliza's (god) father Hastings". Tomalin contents herself with putting forward the possibility, and having brought on character witnesses, abandons the matter with a blithe "whatever the facts".

And what a girl Cousin Eliza is to all accounts: a brazen hussy who marries a French nobleman, the Comte de Feuillade, getting her title, then losing him to the guillotine, much to her relief. The things we find out from a good biography, and better still, two! Eliza, the original Becky Sharpe, turns out to be the model for Lady Susan in the Austen novelette of that name - a work the ever-hypocritical Austen family disapproved of. Eliza moved in and out of Jane's life, finally marrying brother Henry, after a decade of teasing, obliged by fate and age to settle down. Nokes clearly loves Eliza: Tomalin loves her fictional equivalent, Lady Susan. "The exercise is brilliant," writes Tomalin. "So brilliant, that Austen may have frightened herself, and felt she had written herself into a dangerous corner, and been too clever, too bold, too black... that she did not follow it up with anything remotely resembling it suggests that she decided to censor that part of her imagination that interested itself in women's wickedness, and particularly sexual wickedness."

Well, yes. Though, personally, I always thought it was Jane Austen's habit of reading aloud to her family what she'd written during the day that was so inhibitory; never a good idea: families being so much more censorious than the public. One wonders what the family talked about when Jane stopped reading. The disgrace of Aunt Leigh-Perrot's compulsive shop- lifting? Brother Frank's black-mailing (successful) of the Admiralty? ("Awkward rumours began to circulate about quantities of gold and a dead Chinaman," writes Nokes.) The nine-year trial for corruption of Eliza's (god) father Hastings: the reading of wills? But always through the family drama - the Austens were such an energetic, avaricious lot the dramas were non-stop - the craving for Jane to write respectable fiction.

David Nokes, as Reader in English Literature at King's College, London, is a registered authority on our literary heritage. Claire Tomalin, literary editor, biographer and novelist, is an established critic. What is so amazing, in the circumstances, is how readable both books are: how similar the subject matter, yet how little the repetition.

If you insist on choosing between the sheep and the lamb, Nokes has 528 pages of text and 30 pages of notes, mostly consisting of numbered "letters" and "Austen papers" and not an ibid to be seen. I suspect these lists of having been put there by an editor and not because Mr Nokes thought they were in the least necessary or interesting. He has better things to do. Tomalin's gives you 342 pages of which 48 are notes, readable as the text, and two appendices, the first one on the nature of Jane Austen's last illness, which Tomalin suspects of being caused by a lymphoma, probably Hodgkin's Disease, rather than the Addison's Disease of accepted wisdom. (Nokes gives us a powerful and moving deathbed scene but doesn't bother with medical diagnoses.)

Tomalin's second appendix is a bright and riveting piece on contemporary attitudes to slavery. George Austen was trustee of a sugar plantation in Antigua: such small sums as the Austen family had by way of inheritance and annuities come via the slave trade. Tomalin is at pains to point out a rather remote reference to the slave trade in Emma, which, she claims, demonstrates Jane Austen's disapproval of the business. Thus Tomalin, too, in the end joins in the process of beatification, which began on Jane's death - within hours her sister Cassandra was referring to her as "a dear angel" and no doubt (if I can borrow a biographer's torch) planning to burn letters which showed her saintly sister in any other light. Of course, in Tomalin's eyes Jane Austen disapproved of the slave trade. How can possibly she be a contemporary heroine if she did not?

Tomalin veers towards Jane as a goody-goody: Nokes longs for drama. Sister Cassandra comes under his scrutiny. "We have grown used," he writes, "to regarding Jane and Cassandra as "initially identical in thoughts and feelings... the traditional image of these two inseparable sisters as a like-minded pair had such a powerful hold on the imagination of later generations that we have scarcely observed some contrary indications." And Nokes then draws from the internal evidence of the novels to suggest a degree of rivalry, even treachery, between Jane and Cassandra. But I suspect the dramaturge is speaking: how boring those scenes between Cassandra and Jane would be, if they always got on so well...

I think perhaps they did get on; families clung together, perforce, the outside world being so dangerous, and life so short. But what do I know, what do any of us know: what did Phila, Eliza's mother, do between the sheets with Warren Hastings? To be in bed is not necessarily to be impregnated. They could just have lain there. Does it matter? Yes, of course; it's fascinating. The reason we have fiction is so we don't have to put up with the awfulness of never really knowing. And then again how far is public interest in a writer's life, living or dead, legitimate? Let us quickly devour these books before they are legislated against, or we are made to feel guilty, reading them, invading privacy. They compose subversive footnotes to a hagiography, and are far, far livelier than main text ever was.