In Emma Miss Woodhouse makes a great deal of the intelligence that Mr Dixon had rescued Miss Fairfax from almost certain drowning during a boating trip. From it, Emma extrapolates conclusions about Jane’s emotional and moral state which blind her to realities she might otherwise have easily discerned.
The boating incident is not described in Emma. Indeed, apart from Louisa’s Musgrove’s fall from the Cobb at Lyme, all dramatic incidents in Jane Austen’s work happen off-stage to be reported afterwards.
But I am not so constrained. Here is my attempt at it.
The boat was very unstable, rocking decidedly from one side to the other and also bucking from front to back. Considerable quantities of water threw themselves from the surface of the sea, wetting her face, hair and dress. In addition, a light rain had begun to fall.
‘Shall we go below?’ Mr Dixon asked, indicating the companionway which led down to the cabin. ‘We would be drier.’ But the thought of being confined there with him, out of sight, and of what Rowena might construe from such a compromising situation, filled Jane with horror.
‘I would rather stay out here,’ she said. She wrapped her shawl tightly around her and took a seat in the cockpit. ‘Rowena should be our first consideration. She will not like these conditions. If we have anything to discuss – I cannot think what – but if we have, let us delay our conversation until a time when we are less likely to be drowned.’
‘Miss Campbell need have no fear,’ Mr Dixon said, distractedly, ‘she will be safe enough. She might be a little queasy, but that will be all. Oh Miss Fairfax,’ Mr Dixon threw himself – or was thrown, by a sudden surge of the sea – onto the seat next to Jane. He took her hand. ‘For many long months I have harboured a hope… a desire…’
The sea was quite rough, now. The anchor rope strained and creaked under the pressure being exerted on the boat to run before the vigorous wind and powerful current. Mr Dixon couldn’t help but be pressed closely to Jane’s side, a situation which pleased, rather than incommoded him.
‘I beg you, sir,’ said Jane, into the teeth of the tempest, ‘say nothing which will force me to disappoint you.’ She leaned back, away from his face, which was very close to hers. Behind her she could hear the sharp slap of the waves as they hit the boat, the spray of rain on water and above her the angry howl of the wind through the boat’s rigging.
The boat lurched again. Mr Dixon was pulled away from her. She was lifted from her seat but a strong grip on a nearby stanchion prevented her from being thrown into his arms.
‘Would you disappoint me, then?’ His expression was stricken. Water coursed over his hair and face and soaked his clothing. He had never looked so… handsome was not the right word, he would never be that, but so full of masculinity and ardour. ‘Forgive me, but I know your situation. I know what ‘alternative’ course you believe is so very ‘fixed’ – yes, I heard and understood every word – but believe me when I say that it does not have to be so. I can offer you so much more.’
The movement of the sloop catapulted him forward once more. He was next to her, almost on top of her. The frisson this produced in Jane was startling and delicious – she had never imagined, much less experienced such a sensation before. He put his face forward as though to kiss her. She released her handhold and fastened herself to the lapel of his coat. Whether it was to fend him off or to pull him to her, she did not know. He reached for her other hand where it held the ties of her shawl at her throat.
‘I cannot,’ she cried in anguish, ‘there is another…’ She bethought herself of poor Rowena, the duty she owed her as friend, the course she had adopted from an early age of always putting Rowena first, promoting her happiness and encouraging her spirits above and before her own.
‘Another?’ Mr Dixon gasped, misunderstanding, his eyes tormented.
The boat listed violently. Both Jane and Mr Dixon were thrown almost on to their feet. Mr Dixon had better sea-legs and took up a sturdy stance and Jane found herself, momentarily, in his arms. They exchanged an anguished look, such a look as would have broken Jane’s heart if she had loved him. His, she knew, was cracked from top to bottom. Then the side of the boat fell away beneath them. Jane was thrown from Mr Dixon’s embrace. The boom broke free of its restraint and swung across the cockpit. Instinctively, Dixon ducked. She took a glancing blow from the sturdy timber across her shoulders. She was flung back to her seat, which seemed to fall away from her as the boat rolled into a trough between the waves. She grappled for some purchase but found none. There was nothing at her back but the swell of the sea. She felt herself tip, her feet lost their contact with the floor of the cockpit, the chill of the sea was on her back and her hair was caught up in the current. Water filled her ears. Then she was grabbed, her habit, shawl, person – anywhere Mr Dixon could get a purchase – and she was hauled back into the boat. She huddled, drenched and gasping, on the floor of the cockpit.