What is it about Jane Austen that gets people in such a flutter more than 200 years after her birth? Her novels, of course, continue to afford wry vistas on the cultivated lawns of the human heart. But we are as much intrigued by biographical details about the country parson's daughter as by her work, despite the fact that her time on Earth is reputed to have been, as the critic Donald Davie put it, "painfully quiet".

Two new biographies - the gently titled Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin and the even meeker-sounding Jane Austen by David Nokes - suggest that her spinsterish quietude has more to do with our lack of information than Austen's lack of excitement. If we don't have full access to Jane's world, then that's her prim sister Cassandra's fault for disposing of correspondence after the author-ess's death. Both books have been praised for unearthing details that escaped the family clutches, and for casting a sceptical eye on received wisdom. Yet they still run up against those narrative gaps, which allow conflicting interpretations of, for example, her failure to write anything for 10 years after 1800. Tomalin says she became depressed, Nokes that she finally got a life and was too busy. Even if conclusive proof were found today that Austen's real passion was for watching oil-colours dry, it wouldn't end the speculation. She has the peculiar capacity to remind us of the romanticising privileges of an empire-building nation, and also the modest scope required of that nation post-empire.

Which is why the Austen industry is more than just a tourist trade. Go on this afternoon's Jane Austen walk in Winchester around her local haunts, including the cathedral tomb. Cheltenham's one-day Jane Austen Festival tomorrow has already sold out. But you can visit the month-long exhibition, boasting articles from the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. And you can stand there amid the velvet gowns, riding outfits and the bottle-green Darcy daysuit (as worn by Colin Firth), and get a real feel for her defining absence.

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