George Eliot on suggestion and evidence

From Chapter 8 of Silas Marner (1861), on town dignitaries’ inquiries into the movements of a suspicious visitor to the town:

“Did he wear earrings?” Mr. Crackenthorp wished to know, having some acquaintance with foreign customs.

“Well — stay — let me see,” said Mr. Snell, like a docile clairvoyante, who would really not make a mistake if she could help it. After stretching the corners of his mouth and contracting his eyes, as if he were trying to see the earrings, he appeared to give up the effort and said, “Well, he’d got earrings in his box to sell, so it’s nat’ral to suppose he might wear ’em. But he called at every house, a’most, in the village; there’s somebody else, mayhap, saw ’em in his ears, though I can’t take upon me rightly to say.”

Mr. Snell was correct in his surmise that somebody else would remember the peddler’s earrings; for, on the spread of inquiry among the villagers, it was stated with gathering emphasis, that the parson had wanted to know whether the peddler wore earrings in his ears, and an impression was created that a great deal depended on the eliciting of this fact. Of course every one who heard the question not having any distinct image of the peddler as without earrings, immediately had an image of him with earrings, larger or smaller, as the case might be; and the image was presently taken for a vivid recollection, so that the glazier’s wife, a well-intentioned woman, not given to lying, and whose house was among the cleanest in the village, was ready to declare, as sure as ever she meant to take the sacrament the very next Christmas that was ever coming, that she had seen big earrings, in the shape of the young moon, in the peddler’s two ears; while Jinny Oates, the cobbler’s daughter, being a more imaginative person, stated not only that she had seen them too, but that they had made her blood creep, as it did at that very moment while there she stood.

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