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My cold/flu bug was more or less under control for most of this week, but this morning I couldn't get out of bed - or rather, I tried and then subsided back into it again, emerging briefly in the early evening for some scrambled egg. I generally enjoy food, and look forward to eating some again some time soon.

To a happier subject: the excellent Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Jane Austen. My point of comparison was her previous biography of Samuel Pepys, which is I think a slightly better book because its subject had a more interesting and better chronicled life. But Tomalin has achieved wonders here with the slender material available, a writer who barely left southern England in her 41 years, most of whose correspondence was destroyed, and whose legacy is a set of six and a half novels which have caught the imagination of the English-speaking world.

Austen's family background had two points of particular interest for me. One is that her brother (like her uncle) had severe learning disabilities. There were ways of dealing with this two hundred years ago: a separate house was found for him in the village, and a local couple were paid (from the ever uncertain family funds) to look after him. It's one of those aspects of family life that I guess I am personally quite sensitive about. We're awfully lucky to live in a country with a real welfare state, where our own girls have easy and cheap access to the care that they need and we cannot possibly provide. It's worth being reminded that these issues are not new to our time.

The second point is the modest Austen family's connection with high politics. In particular, the Austens were closely connected with Warren Hastings. Jane's favourite cousin, Eliza (who later married her brother and literary agent, Henry) was supposedly Warren Hasting's biological daughter, and certainly his god-daughter; Hastings' only son, George, actually died in the care of the then newly-married Austen parents in 1764 (eleven years before she was born). Looking west rather than east (and not quite as far), Jane's one serious teenage crush ended up (long after her death) as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. It was quite a small world, conscious of status and potential scandal.

One really regrets that Austen did not live longer or travel more while she lived. She achieved wonders from a very constrained existence. On the day of my grandmother's funeral in 1979 we visited Chawton, which is convenient to Brookwood (my grandmother is one of the quarter-million resting there). I was only 12 at the time, and had barely heard of Jane Austen (weird to note that Sense and Sensibility was not published in paperback until after I was born) but I remember being struck by the ordinariness of the place; how could somewhere so small generate literature so well-known? Yet it happened; and from the scant traces that remain, Tomalin has written another very good book.

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